BPA, Tribes Reach $900 Million Deal
by William McCall
PORTLAND -- Federal officials have reached a settlement with four of five Northwest tribes that would leave hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin intact and commit federal agencies to spend $900 million on improving conditions for endangered salmon.
Regional tribes and federal agencies that manage 24 dams and irrigation projects along the Columbia and Snake rivers have been legal adversaries for years over balancing fishing rights, salmon runs and power demands.
Under the settlement announced today by the Bonneville Power Administration, the tribes would end lawsuits they have filed against the federal agencies over management of the power-producing system and agree not to file further lawsuits for 10 years.
During that time, the federal agencies would expand their efforts to protect endangered and threatened fish in the Columbia Basin, spending the $900 million for hatchery improvements, stream restoration work, screens to protect fish and additional spillway weirs on some of the dams.
However, the settlement may still face some hurdles.
Another regional tribe, the Nez Perce, has not signed on.
And environmental groups and fishing groups were critical of the agreement because it would take the possibility of dam-breaching off the table.
"This agreement doesn't change the law, it doesn't change the science," said Todd True, attorney for Earthjustice, representing a number of environmental groups.
"It addresses issues that may be important to the tribes, but it doesn't address the critical issue of river operations," True said.
Environmentalists have argued that salmon populations cannot recover without removing some dams.
It is unclear whether a federal judge who has been holding hearings on the lawsuits will give his blessing to the agreement.
U.S. District Judge James Redden has rejected several plans from the Bonneville Power Administration for balancing the conflicting demands on the Columbia Basin. In 2005 he ordered the agency to negotiate with regional tribes, Oregon and Washington state on ways to better protect fish.
Negotiations with the states are continuing.
Before the agreement can be implemented, federal agencies will first have to persuade Redden that they have a workable scientific plan for protecting fish. That plan, separate from the agreement announced today, is called a biological opinion.
Redden has given federal officials until May 5 to present him with a new biological opinion.
The BPA and the four tribes that announced the settlement hope it will give impetus to resolving disputes that have been raging for years over how to protect endangered and threatened fish in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The tribes have taken the agency to task for what they felt were inadequate responses to their treaty rights, cultural and religious beliefs that have strong ties to fishing, said John Ogen of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.
"There have been improvements and gains secured" in this agreement, Ogen said. "It's a real action plan for fish."
The groups say the agreement makes specific commitments to action that haven't been seen in other plans, including more than 200 specific projects across the basin, ranging from fixing degraded streams and riparian areas to putting in screens and irrigation systems that allow agriculture to move forward but protect fish.
"We have spent decades arguing with each other," said Steve Wright, BPA administrator. "Today these parties are saying let's lay down the swords, let's spend more time working collaboratively to implement measures that help fish and less time litigating."
The tribes that signed on to the agreement are the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yamaka Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation.
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