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Commentaries and editorials

Power Council Cranks Up Sub-Basin Planning Effort

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, December 20, 2001

Scientists Skeptical

Power Planning Council members were somewhat cranky at last week's meeting in Portland, now that work has begun to mesh the Council's fish and wildlife program with measures recommended in the NMFS hydro BiOp to satisfy ESA requirements for listed Columbia Basin fish. It probably didn't help to have a member of the Council's independent science panel tell them the group doesn't think any of the region's salmon recovery plans have a good chance of success, though they acknowledged the Council's program was a work in progress (Their report is located on the NWPPC's website).

BPA officials were on hand to re-emphasize their commitment to funding and listen to what the rest of the region wanted for Christmas. During a Dec. 11 roundtable discussion, utility interests brought their own wish list to the Council and said BPA should draw the line on costs, while tribal groups complained that more funding than ever is needed, and that means federal taxpayer money, not just the dollars generated by Northwest ratepayers.

Irrigators were there to push their own agenda--to drop the spring flow augmentation strategy and use the money generated by extra power production to fund water projects in partnership with Basin tribal interests.

The huge effort to organize the Council's program at the sub-basin level is now picking up steam, but to some members, it seemed like extra processes being heaped upon the ones already in place. "We don't need the Power Council stepping into Washington state and telling them, 'we're here.' It's too much like the feds," said chair Larry Cassidy. His remarks came after staff attorney John Ogan briefed the council on strategies that might get the sub-basin amendment process rolling, including the possibility of holding public workshops throughout the region.

Cassidy was concerned about "duplicative processes," since a sub-basin summary exercise has already been completed. But Council staffer Lynn Palensky noted that northeast Washington residents have already requested a workshop to learn how to make recommendations for the sub-basin process. Cassidy said there is a 'sense of urgency' about getting the sub-basin program in place.

According to a draft Council document, NMFS has agreed to use the sub-basin plans "as the foundation for its recovery planning tasks" and will provide interim targets for ESA-listed salmon populations. "The Council believes that sub-basin plans that follow the Technical Guidelines and Overview that it has adopted are likely to have the scientific support and comprehensiveness that it will require for NMFS to find them adequate for near-term ESA regulatory purposes," the document reads.

"That is a key issue," said acting NWPPC F&W head Doug Marker, who added that NMFS' stand needs to be clarified.

BPA F&W head Sarah McNary suggested a year-long "test" of the sub-basin process, but the idea was not well received by Cassidy, who wants to get the process under way now. McNary said BPA was relatively comfortable with a phased approach, one that would allow contracting matters to get worked out on a small scale.

Cassidy said there is a "sense of urgency" about getting the program in place. The Council has already spent a year talking to state, tribal and federal entities about coordinating the planning effort.

With 62 sub-basins to contend with, the tentative schedule calls for submitting recommendations for the first three provinces (Gorge, Inter-Mountain, Mountain Columbia) by Nov. 1, 2002. The deadline for the second four (Plateau, Mountain Snake, Blue Mountain, Middle Snake) is Nov. 1, 2003, while submissions for the last four (Columbia Cascade, Upper Snake, Lower Columbia, Estuary) should be completed by Nov. 1, 2004.

Each state, along with pertinent tribes, is expected to determine the best approach for developing the Council's sub-basin plans.

The Council has established a preliminary budget of $15.2 million for the sub-basin planning effort for the next two years, with half expected to come from Bonneville. But BPA may be on the hook for more, since neither the Bureau of Reclamation nor the Corps of Engineers has any money budgeted for the process. The power agency is concerned that it won't receive proper BiOp "credit" for the off-site mitigation it will be funding, since NMFS has said it will be three to seven years before it can determine potential benefits of these restoration efforts.

The ISAB had an even more pessimistic view. Scientist Pete Bisson told the Council it was "unrealistic" to assume that monitoring strategies can be put in place to measure real changes in fish runs in the five- to eight-year time frame proposed in the hydro BiOp.

With the BPA commitment to spend $186 million next year on F&W programs (including capital costs) as a background for discussion, a roundtable of power industry types made it clear that they did not want the agency to significantly increase fish and wildlife spending. PNUCC chair Gerald Miller said the agency "should recognize the critical state of the Northwest economy," sentiments echoed by PGE's Pamela Lesh.

Umatilla Electric Co-op's Steve Eldridge said irrigators in his region are faced with 70 percent increases in their electric bills. He suggested a reduced emphasis on reservoir drawdowns and more effort to improve conditions in Basin tributaries. Without a unified funding plan, he said BPA should cut fish and wildlife budgets.

Others, including PPC's Rob Walton and NWIU's John Saven, called for reducing spring flow augmentation because it has little proven biological value to migrating fish compared to the cost in foregone power.

On the other side of the roundtable, Idaho Fish and Game Department head Rod Sando said because of the rigid nature of the ESA, nothing was tougher than managing endangered species. But he warned that talk of a budget cap for F&W spending was "premature" and more flexible options should be explored.

CRITFC director Don Sampson said federal taxpayers should be contributing to the program and pressure kept on the Administration to that end. He also thought BPA could spend more.

"We want to ask BPA how they explain costs," Sampson said, adding that he didn't accept the agency's most recent explanation of its fish and wildlife spending. In a Dec. 3 letter to Council chair Larry Cassidy, BPA said it was increasing spending by 50 percent over the 1996-2001 Budget MOA, a figure higher than the average of 13 alternatives modeled in the rate case.

The group told the Council that members should ask BPA to explain the costs. Otherwise, the tribes were prepared to go back to Washington, DC and ask those questions. "What happened this year didn't really have to happen," said Umatilla tribal spokesperson Kathryn Brigham.

The following day, irrigators once more explained their "New Water Management Alternative," this time packaged as a recommendation to the Council's mainstem amendment program. Consultant Darryll Olsen said the alternative's focus is on water volumes, not flow targets as in the BiOp. He said the spring flow program should be eliminated and the summer flow regime modified. "It's no different than how the Council managed water in its early years," Olsen said, and cited NMFS' own survival studies in his report.

Restructuring the flow program would leave more water for winter power generation and add another $70 million to $100 million in revenues, which could be used for direct funding of water projects. Olsen said tribes could be equity partners in these projects.

Such a regime would reduce Montana's and Idaho's annual water contributions, which would help his state, said Norm Semanko of the Idaho Water Users Association. He said a huge conflict was brewing in Idaho over surface water and ground water issues. "Junior water rights need mitigation," he said, which could come from reservoirs if they weren't drawn down for augmenting spring flows in the Snake.

In other Council business, members voted 7-1 (Oregon's Bloch voting no) for a major overhaul of the Fish Passage Center's oversight board. The FPC has been criticized for not sharing data and for its strident advocacy of flow and spill operations.

The motion calls for three possible options to be worked out between the Council and the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. All would reduce current representation of fish and wildlife managers and add a Council presence, along with an independent scientist, a NMFS staffer, upriver and downriver tribal representatives and a member of the public.

The debate over the biological value of a large land parcel in the upper Methow Valley was also discussed after BPA balked at paying its $2.5 million share for conservation easements on the property, in a $17 million deal coordinated by the Trust For Public Land. The agency said new information indicated that the river de-watered more often than the proposal indicated, and the Council voted to send the proposal back to the science panel for another look.

"I can't make judgments from the media," said Council chair Cassidy. Staffers said a recent story in NW Fishletter had focused more scrutiny on the proposal.

"Those issues [de-watering] were there initially," said Montana council member Leo Giacometto. "When there's no water in the stream, I can make a judgment call."

Bill Rudolph
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