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NPCC Heads To Finish Line In Approving New Regional Fish & Wildlife Program
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 16, 2009 

Northwest Power and Conservation Council members this week entered the home stretch, still debating final strategies that will guide their Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program for the next five years or longer.

The Council members spent better than half of the day Wednesday discussing five of the more contentious issues that emerged during a 2 -month public comment period -- the status of the Fish Passage Center within the program, the appropriateness of quantitative biological objectives, wildlife strategies, resident fish mitigation and implementation strategies.

The Council is scheduled to adopt final program amendments at its next meeting, Feb. 10-12 in Portland. It initiated the amendment process in November 2007 by soliciting recommendations from the region's state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, Indian tribes, and others, as required by the Northwest Power Act.

The Council prepared a draft after reviewing the recommendations, supporting information submitted with the recommendations, and comments received on the recommendations. The draft was released in early September and comments on it were accepted through Dec. 1.

The goals, strategies and objectives in the final plan will be used to direct spending in a growing fish and wildlife program. The Bonneville Power Administration, which funds the program, provided up to $143 million in expense and $36 million for capital projects annually during the past three fiscal years and expects spending to increase to $200 million this year, $230 million in 2010 and $235 million in 2011.

The increase is driven by project funding needs arising from a new NOAA Fisheries Service biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System and from new "salmon accords" signed by Bonneville with basin states and tribes. The Council has agreed to incorporate the terms of those documents as part of the amended program, though specific projects or measures outlined in the accords or other amendment recommendations will likely land in an appendix, according to Patty O'Toole, NPCC program implementation manager.

The BiOp describes operations and off-site mitigation actions intended to assure that the federal Columbia/Snake hydro system does not jeopardize the survival of 13 Columbia basin salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. BPA, which market power generated by the dams, is obligated under both the ESA and the Power Act to mitigate for the hydro system's effects on fish and wildlife

During this week's meeting in Missoula, Mont., the Council paged through the evolving amendment document section by section, suggesting and sometimes debating the staff-produced language therein. Council staff will spend the next few weeks incorporating those changes, some agreed to by consensus, others not.

"Until it's laid out in front of them and they see all the changes, it's still undecided," O'Toole said of the final strategies on a few of the issues.

Friction remains over the Fish Passage Center, an entity specifically named in past programs. The FPC collects and analyzes data on migrating salmon and juvenile steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers. It was created to provide information to state, federal, and tribal fish and wildlife managers to aid in developing operational recommendations for the federal hydroelectric system to improve salmon and steelhead survival in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The FPC function has been funded through the Council fish and wildlife program since 1982. It has often drawn fire from some who say its analysis is biased against the hydro system. The region's fish and wildlife management entities have for the most part staunchly defended the analysis.

"We had quite a bit of debate about this one," NPCC Chair Bill Booth, Idaho, said of the written comments filed with the Council and oral testimony presented during public hearings. Some want specific mention of the Fish Passage Center removed from the program; others want the status quo.

Oregon Councilors Melinda Eden and Joan Dukes pointed out that the FPC was established at request of the fish and wildlife managers, to whom the Council owes deference according to the terms of the Power Act.

"We have received comments from every state and federal fish and wildlife entity and the tribes that they want to leave the Fish Passage Center as it is," Dukes said. "They are the people that are out on the ground, the people that make this work."

She said the Council would be "flying in the face of the Act" if it adopted suggested amendments with language referring to the FPC as the entity now performing the data gathering and analytical functions, but not specifying that the center perform those functions in the future.

"It's also a part of the accords, which the Council is acknowledging and adopting into the program," Eden said.

Washington Councilor Tom Karier noted that the FPC is the only particular entity specifically named in the Council program and thus the only entity with earmarked funding. All other projects funded through the program are subject to scientific reviews and are in competition with other projects for funding.

Montana's Rhonda Whiting said such an earmark amounts to micromanaging.

"I don't think a policy level document does that," Whiting said.

Fellow Montana Councilor Bruce Measure acknowledged that the FPC would likely carry out its existing functions for some time because of the accords but said that the suggested language would give the flexibility to make a change if need be at some point in the future.

In the end, Booth directed staff to write the suggested language into the final document that will be put to a vote in February. Approving the amendments requires a supermajority of six votes from the eight-member panel, or a simple majority that includes at least one vote from each of the four participating states. The NPCC includes two members each from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The same vote structure, as required by the Power Act, will also be used to approve "findings and recommendations" that will be completed after the amendments are approved. The findings provide the Council rationale for adopting the amendment provisions.

Another split opinion amongst commenters is whether or not the new program should include quantitative biological objectives. Past programs, as an example, have set as a goal building salmon populations to the level that 5 million salmon return to the basin on average every year. Some say the rationale for such numbers, and smolt-to-adult-return targets in past programs, is unclear. Fish managers strongly support the objectives.

In the end the Council opted to keep the salmon objective, "until such time it is changed," Booth said. The Council and other regional stakeholders are amidst a process to update, refine and define biological objectives for the program. Washington Councilors Karier and Dick Wallace suggested adding language that says the Council program, and hydro system, would need help from others in the region to accomplish the goal.

"The power system cannot produce 5 million fish by itself," Karier said.


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