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Reclamation Bureau Urges Passage of Fish Screen Legislation

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 24, 2003

The head of the Bureau of Reclamation has urged senators to pass legislation allowing the agency to fund and construct fish screens and passage improvements at non-federal irrigation facilities in Oregon and Washington state to aid salmon recovery.

But first, Commissioner John Keys wants the bill by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., to be amended to require owners to pay 35 percent of the cost. Smith, who introduced the bill earlier this year, altered the Bush administration's original proposal and eliminated the usual cost-sharing requirement. Instead, the federal government would pay the entire cost of such improvements.

The program is budgeted to receive $4 million in 2004 if Congress passes the authorizing bill.

Fish screen and passage projects bring immediate benefit to at-risk salmon and steelhead populations by reducing fish mortality and providing access to tributary migration, spawning, and rearing habitat, Keys told a Senate Water and Power Subcommittee hearing on Oct. 15. Increasing fish survival and habitat would help the bureau comply with Endangered Species Act requirements for Columbia Basin salmon runs listed as endangered or threatened, he said.

Owners of the non-federal projects that would be improved also would benefit from bringing their facilities into compliance with the ESA, Keys said in his testimony. A cost-sharing of 35 percent, including the value of in-kind services, is appropriate, he said.

Smith is not inclined to change the bill, however, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

"He feels his first obligation is to water users," press secretary Caroline Mullen said. But the senator's office and bureau officials are still negotiating in hopes of "working it out."

A date for Senate committee action on the bill has not been scheduled.

The bureau has planned and designed improvements for non-federal facilities that receive water from federal reclamation projects, but needs additional legal authority to construct the facilities or pay for their construction.

The non-federal improvements are needed to implement the government's 2000 Columbia Basin salmon recovery plan and biological opinion for fish impacted by federal dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers, Keys said.

Keys, who previously was the bureau's Pacific Northwest region director, also urged swift Senate action on the bill to help overcome a Portland federal judge's ruling in May that found the recovery plan is legally flawed.

Federal agencies were given until spring 2004 to revise the plan.

"The need for this authority has been highlighted in the ongoing litigation," he said. The court ruled the 2000 biological opinion did not comply with the ESA because some anticipated future actions by federal agencies were not reasonably certain to occur. The plan's habitat section would improve tributary spawning and rearing conditions by working with private parties to screen diversions and to provide fish passage at their non-federal water diversion structures.

"Reclamation's lack of authority to fund the construction of needed screen and migration barrier projects on non-federal facilities falls within this category. This deficiency would be eliminated by the passage of S. 1307," Keys said, referring to the bill.

Keys supported a second major change that Smith made from the administration's original proposal. The bill would exclude projects in the Snake River Basin of Idaho and Oregon unless improvements specifically mitigate for fish losses caused by the Columbia-Snake federal hydropower system. Smith excluded the Snake Basin at the request of the Idaho Water Users Association.

by CBB Staff
Reclamation Bureau Urges Passage of Fish Screen Legislation
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 24, 2003

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