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Council Promises More Scrutiny of Fish Passage Center, Possible Audit

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, October 27, 2004

At the October meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, members bent over backwards to assure the region that there was nothing personal about their continued scrutiny of the Fish Passage Center (FPC). The ongoing review has already generated letters of protest from state and tribal fish agencies.

The Center is a small agency created in 1984 for gathering data on fish migrations, hydro operations and water management in the Columbia Basin. Since then, the 11-person staff, led by long-time manager Michele DeHart, has morphed into a technical arm for state and tribal agencies in the Columbia Basin. The Center has been called on the carpet several times for its strong advocacy of spill and flow augmentation in the federal hydro system.

In 2001, the council decided to form an oversight board to provide general guidance over FPC activities rather than de-fund the small agency. The board spent two years writing its own by-laws and decided that it didn't have the expertise to provide technical guidance for the center.

Meanwhile, the Center continued analyzing data at the request of fish agencies. Just last summer, an FPC memo took issue with the proposal by federal agencies to reduce summer spill. And a few weeks ago, the Center posted its comments about the draft BiOp, concluding that the federal government's plan for dam operations doesn't avoid jeopardy to the ESA-listed fish stocks that pass through the hydro system.

Now a three-member subcommittee made up of NWPCC members is reviewing an FPC request for a budget increase, and has decided to expand its efforts. It seems likely that the group will call on an outside accounting firm to audit the cost-effectiveness of FPC's data gathering and dissemination duties.

Oregon member Gene Derfler, speaking on Oct. 12 before the Council's fish and wildlife committee, said he wanted to clear up a lot of confusion about what the committee was trying to do.

"We're not trying to change what the Fish Passage Center does," he said, noting that the subcommittee members feel they have the responsibility to look at the structure of the group's organization to see if work is being done in the most efficient manner.

Derfler said the subcommittee has met with several groups--including the University of Washington's DART (Data Access in Real Time) group, NOAA Fisheries' Science Center, and the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority--to see if there is a "better way" of organizing things, to get better information or get it at lesser cost.

He hoped the report would be ready by next month's council meeting, but said it may take longer if an outside auditing firm is called in.

Montana member John Hines said there has been "a lot of rumor and innuendo out there in the region that we are trying to dismantle the Fish Passage Center, and indeed, that is not the focus of this sub-committee. We're trying to look at things more efficiently, as well as address the specific budget request above what was already addressed to the Fish Passage Center."

FPC manager Michele DeHart has asked for a $140,000 boost to her $1.3 million budget to pay for salary raises, new computers and rent increases.

Hines said there were some "issues" brought up by the groups they consulted and the concept of centralizing data collection was "something we feel should be explored in greater detail."

"Using an outside source may be the approach to take," Hines said, "especially given the perception by some that the council is somehow biased against the Fish Passage Center." Any cost savings could then go to fish, Hines added, instead of paying for "duplicative regional activities." It was reported that the accounting firm Moss-Adams might be asked to perform the audit.

Larger Issues Loom

Hines said there were a couple of other areas that warranted a broader look, but weren't directly tied to the Fish Passage Center. Rather, they concerned improving efficiency in the regional management of fish activities.

Fish tagging for survival research falls in this category, an issue Hines called the "potential dislocation of the tagging efforts" and the lack of a centralized approach to the activity. The FPC supervises a large Pit-tag study of hatchery fish as part of a years-long effort to compare survivals of fish from different basin hatcheries.

Washington council member Larry Cassidy, the third subcommittee member, said the timing of this review is coincidental with the recent controversy over the plan to reduce summer spill. He said he was glad the committee had a chance to clear the air on this matter. Cassidy who serves as chair of the FPC's oversight board, said "things have worked better there" with the help of CBFWA director Rod Sando. At this point though, Cassidy said he would have difficulty supporting a budget increase for the FPC.

Idaho member Judi Danielson said the Council had received a number of letters supporting the FPC budget request. "They're all pretty much the same, they all contain misinformation, accusations, veiled threats, and a number of things like that." She said they raised "red flags" in her mind, and left the council "a little more committed to find out what the deal is when it comes to the budget."

It seems that Oregon Council member Gene Derfler may be at odds with his own boss. The Oregon Governor's Office supported the FPC's budget increase, saying any change in the FPC's administrative structure or reduction in its scope of responsibilities "would be disruptive to Oregon's continued leadership on long-term solutions for fish passage." The letter, signed by Gov. Kulongoski's natural resources policy director Michael Carrier, said any effort to optimize the cost-effectiveness of data collection should begin with a formal consultation with the fish managers.

Idaho fish managers also supported the Center's budget increase. In a letter signed by IDFG head Steve Huffaker, the agency said the FPC's data collection and analysis was essential "to enabling informed decisions about hydropower operations."

WDFW director Jeff Koenings also supported the funding increase and opposed any restructuring. Koenings said any reductions in service jeopardized state and tribal fish managers' ability to provide a thorough review of the draft BiOp

A missive from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission noted that it was only aware of rumors of proposed changes to the duties of FPC. Without going through the amendment process, the commission said it couldn't lawfully adopt any changes.

CRITFC suggested the thrust for potential changes to the Center may come from folks who may be "discontent" with the Oregon District Court ruling that nixed the reduced spill proposal for summer 2004 operations. They also said any changes to FPC operations would require a formal process for amending the fish and wildlife program. They said moving data reporting to the U.W.'s DART web page would be unacceptable for a variety of reasons, including the fact that DART is not accountable to either the tribes or fish and wildlife agencies.

The CRITFC letter hinted at possible litigation if the Council review calls for changes. "Casting the issue of the duties and administration of the Fish Passage Center as a budget matter provides no legal foothold for the Council," said CRITFC Chair Jay Minthorn

Bill Rudolph
Council Promises More Scrutiny of Fish Passage Center, Possible Audit
NW Fishletter, October 27, 2004

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