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Commentaries and editorials

Washington State Expresses Concerns
Over Council Plan

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 29, 2000

A draft Northwest Power Planning Council program amendment pays too little attention to looming Endangered Species Act mandates and aims to delve inappropriately into state and local watershed and land use arenas, according to comments submitted last week by Washington state agencies.

A Sept. 22 letter signed by Curt Smitch says the state's agencies question the Council's full commitment to helping Columbia Basin states address ESA impacts. Detailed comments from those state agencies were enclosed with the letter from Washington Gov. Gary Locke's special assistant for natural resources.

"For us it is a high priority," Smitch said of legal responsibilities imposed on the state and its citizens by the ESA.

The comments were amongst a host received by the Council on its draft amendment, which is seen as the first phase in the restructuring of what has been a $127 million annual fish and wildlife program. Written comments on the proposal were due by Sept. 22. The Council, made up of two appointees each from the governors of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, and its staff will mull comments as it prepares a final draft.

The Council has said it would like approve the phase I amendment -- a set of basinwide goals, objectives and scientific foundation -- in October. A second phase involving the development of "province" goals and objects and subbasin assessments and action plans would be carried out over the coming year.

A flaw in the phase 1 amendment is that it does not clearly define the appropriate roles of the federal agencies, Basin tribes, state and local governments or the Council in the development of those plans, according to Smitch's letter. Nor does it describe how the restructured program will help those entities answer ESA demands.

"The state of Washington has a substantial watershed planning process in place, and we are concerned for several reasons about the establishment of a parallel, if not competing, watershed planning and assessment processes," Smitch wrote. "First, the draft says these plans will be developed, but is short on the details about who will develop them, and how they will be developed. More importantly, it is not at all clear as to what is expected of the state, local governments and local citizens once the subbasin plans are completed."

Smitch's letter said that the timeline suggested for developing the subbasin plans may be too optimistic and "compromise the quality of these plans and the degree of local support for them." He noted that the region's fish and wildlife managers have historically held sway in the development and implementation of the program.

"Given this history, we are very concerned about the role of local governments, the state and local citizens in the Council's subbasin planning process," Smith wrote.

"The reality is that we just see a tremendous amount of institutional inertia in the Council-CBFWA process," Smitch said Wednesday. The Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, made up representatives of state, federal and tribal fish and wildlife agencies, has annually reviewed project proposals and recommended to the Council which should be funded.

Smitch said a growing list of federally protected species has spread recovery responsibility beyond the fish and wildlife management realm and must include land managers and owners and other entities.

"We're not comfortable working through CBFWA," Smitch said.

Larry Cassidy, the NWPPC's chairman and an appointee of Washington Gov. Gary Locke, said the Council and Smitch are on the same page, but it's a question of timing. He and other council members have stressed that the subbasin planning must be all-inclusive and attempt to incorporate information already developed by state and local sources and avoid duplication

The aim is to "have one concentrated effort instead of all these fragmented efforts," Cassidy said. A finer definition of roles and expectations is forthcoming in the amendment process' second phase.

"Hopefully some of what Curt wants is in the works," Cassidy said. He said all of the points made by Smitch and the state agencies are "legitimate" and solutions would be considered as the Council and staff prepared a final phase 1 amendment.

Smitch's letter also says that the federal agencies charged with recovering listed species, meanwhile, want to give too much of the responsibility for implementing their recovery plan to the Council and its fish and wildlife program. A recently released draft hydrosystem BiOp targets the Council program, paid for by the federal Bonneville Power Administration, as a source of funding for off-site mitigation to improve survival of listed species.

"We are very concerned about this apparent deferral of the federal agencies ESA responsibilities to the Council," Smitch wrote. "While the state acknowledges the Council's fish and wildlife role, the federal agencies are charged by federal law with the task of providing an overarching strategy (commonly referred to as a recovery plan) for recovering ESA-listed species in the Columbia Basin. This is neither the responsibility of nor an appropriate role for the Council."

Smitch said that Washington comments to NMFS on the draft BiOp would express similar concerns about the lack of integration between NWPPC's program and federal recovery plan.

The Washington agencies' comments fault the draft program language for not recognizing the federal law 's primacy.

"The Council's draft amendment refers to ESA's 'narrowly focused recovery programs' for listed species. The draft goes on to indicate that the ESA 'diverts our attention from the broader task of protecting biological diversity and ecosystem function, which actually may be the best way to benefit both the listed and unlisted species.' "

"Given this perspective of the ESA, we question the Council's full commitment to helping the state address ESA impacts. Washington is particularly sensitive to this issue because, unlike the Council's program, the ESA imposes certain legal responsibilities on state and local governments and private citizens," Smitch wrote.

NMFS, in comments on the Council plan, took affront at the draft's "implicit tone" that ESA diverts attention from broader mitigation goals.

"The Council has a conservation mandate that should include preventing extinction as its highest priority," according to a letter signed by NMFS' Donna Darm. "Furthermore, NMFS and other federal agencies have worked to ensure that efforts of the FCRPS operators to meet their ESA obligations are well coordinated with this Northwest Power Act obligations."

"To that end, NMFS has relied on the Council's proposed direction for subbasin planning in its draft FCRPS opinion and in the federal agencies' conceptual recovery plan to provide guidance for the investment of ratepayer funds through Bonneville's fish and wildlife funding program."

"If the Council's amendments do not acknowledge the importance of preventing species' extinction, and of assisting state and local governments in addressing ESA requirements, it will be more difficult for the federal agencies to defer to Council processes for ESA implementation," according to NMFS' letter.

NMFS also said "the amendment needs to be strengthened by more specific commitments to integrate with other programs in assessment, planning and prioritization processes." It advised that Council subbasin assessments and plans be built on state and local efforts already under way and that states and counties be encouraged to take lead roles in the planning.

NMFS wrote that "funding priorities for the direct program should also be guided by Bonneville's ESA obligation" and should note and address priority subbasins identified in the BiOp. NMFS also suggested that the Council develop a prioritization scheme that shows the relationship of ongoing projects, early actions, and biological opinion measures.

Smitch stressed the need for the Council to recognize its own role and authorities.

" this draft amendment moves the Council into an inappropriate operational role, particularly with regard to the subbasin planning process, but also with the establishment of parallel processes in hydro and hatchery operations, and the Council's projected involvement in water and land acquisition," Smitch wrote.

"By the Council's own admission in the draft amendment, it is a 'planning, policy-making and reviewing body.' It is not an administrative body, nor should it be. It has neither authority with regard to the ESA or the federal Clean Water Act nor with regard to the regulatory responsibilities of state and local government, and existing watershed processes within Washington.

"The Council's focus, rather, should be on identifying how best to support and augment state and local salmon recovery initiatives and to develop a strong accountability program to ensure that Bonneville Power Administration funds, which are expended to meet the requirements of the ESA, are done so efficiently and, in fact, obtain results.

"We do not believe such an adequate system has been established to date. These tasks, along with programs to promote non-ESA listed species, should be the Council's focus, not the specifics of ESA salmon recovery at the watershed level within Washington," Smitch wrote.

"We recognize that this point of view raises difficult issues for the Council. Accordingly, we strongly urge that discussions occur at the earliest opportunity regarding how we might specifically redirect our respective efforts on behalf of ESA-listed species within the Columbia Basin in Washington. We acknowledge and respect the important role of the region's tribes, and we fully encourage and welcome their participation in these discussions.

"Any realigned process needs to emphasize much clearer scientific standards and accountability, directly from the federal agencies responsible for implementing the ESA. It must encourage much fuller partnerships with, and support for, fish recovery from local governments and citizens," Smitch concluded.

"It must avoid duplication and top-down planning. And it must minimize new forums and process layers so that more focus can be put into obtaining real results in our watersheds. We are confident that, together, we can redirect our efforts and develop a program that will better ensure consistency and integration with the state's efforts and respect the path that we, and possibly other states, have chosen to address these ESA fish recovery issues."

Link information:
Federal Caucus:

by Barry Espenson
Washington State Expresses Concerns Over Council Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 29, 2000

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