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House Approves Fish Screen Funding

by CBB
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 19, 1999

The House of Representatives has approved creation of a federal grant program of up to $25 million per year to help Northwest and California irrigators install and upgrade fish-blocking screens on water diversions.

The voice vote passage of the bill on Nov. 9 sets the stage for enactment next year of projects that are being required by federal agencies to reduce losses of endangered salmon.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate but neither it nor the House bill are expected to be voted on there until at least next spring.

The bill is supported by the Oregon Water Resources Congress, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, American Rivers and Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.

"I believe this bill will help protect the salmon resources of the Pacific Northwest while allowing the agriculture industry to continue its operations. This is a noncontroversial bill," Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., chairman of the Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans Subcommittee, told the House.

"This is a bill that is good news for salmon and other fish species which are on the verge of being endangered or threatened, and good news for local economies - for farmers - and good news for taxpayers," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., co-author of the bill, said. "With the federal government investing this money in fish screens, ultimately we may avoid the endangerment of numerous species of fish and help promote the recovery of salmon."

Many irrigation diversions are unscreened, allowing salmon smolts to enter irrigation canals and facilities that prevent them from returning to the Columbia or Snake rivers or their tributaries, he said.

"We should be screening all the diversions on fish-bearing rivers in the Northwest and into California, because we are investing hundreds of millions - ultimately billions of dollars - elsewhere (in the region) to help recover these species," DeFazio said.

If the measure becomes law, up to $25 million a year could be appropriated by Congress annually beginning in fiscal year 2001 through 2005 for the matching-grant program for the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and California. Irrigators would pay 35 percent of the cost of a project, which could not already be receiving funding from another source. Participation in the grant program would be voluntary.

The Fish and Wildlife Service would develop and administer the program in consultation with the Bureau of Reclamation. The main goal is to screen canals, intakes and other water diversions to prevent losses of endangered salmon.

"At a time when farmers in the Northwest are struggling to make ends meet, it's imperative that the federal government provide relief to farmers who are mandated to build fish screens in order to save endangered fish species," Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the other co-author, said.

Farmers in his congressional district, which covers eastern and southern Oregon, want and need the assistance, he said. "They are not looking for a way to avoid the ESA (Endangered Species Act); they are merely looking for an affordable way to provide the systems to help prevent the loss of fish."

To improve fish screen and fish passage structures, irrigation district members of the Oregon Water Resources Congress alone need more than $50 million, double the amount allotted to all five states by the bill, Jan Lee, executive director, said.

Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department Director Jim Greer said the new federal money would "go a long way towards helping water diverters meet their state and federal obligations to protect fish, while ensuring that their water needs are met."

Companion legislation was introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on it earlier this month. But it resembles an earlier House version, which did not include California in the program and placed the Bureau of Reclamation in charge, which irrigators fear would dilute the budget for traditional reclamation programs.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a supporter of the bill, this week predicted it will be passed early next year either separately or as part of an anticipated emergency supplemental appropriations bill. "It's the right thing to do," Craig said.

House Approves Fish Screen Funding
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 19, 1999

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