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NW Fishletter #384, August 1, 2018

[4] Renewal Of Fish Accords Under Consideration, BPA Tells Council Committee

The Bonneville Power Administration is considering a four-year extension of the Columbia River Fish Accords, and--if it goes forward with a renewal--the agency expects to have a proposal out for public review by August, Bryan Mercier, executive manager of BPA's Fish and Wildlife Division, told a Northwest Power and Conservation Council committee on July 10.

Mercier said Bonneville is trying to negotiate a package with states and tribes to extend the agreement through 2022, the year federal agencies expect to have completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and issued a decision on the Federal Columbia River Power System.

He told the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee that BPA's consideration of new accords will be fully transparent, with ample opportunity for input. Once a new agreement is proposed and opened to public comment, BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer will "take a hard look at the comments and then make a decision." If he approves, Mercier said, he would likely sign the new accords before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

The few details about a possible renewal of the accords came out when committee members questioned Mercier during a discussion about BPA's budget cuts to the Fish and Wildlife Program. So far, BPA has been largely silent about whether it intends to continue funding the accords, given its efforts to cut costs in fish and wildlife and other BPA departments in order to stay competitive in a changing energy market. The agency told NW Fishletter in a recent email that there would be no information to share about the accords until the end of July.

Originally signed in May 2008, the 10-year agreement involving the federal action agencies, three of four Northwest states and several of the region's tribes has provided nearly $1 billion to supplement biological opinions and the Fish and Wildlife Program to help salmon and steelhead by providing firm commitments to improving hydro projects, habitat and hatcheries.

It was designed to avoid litigation and use funds that might be spent in court on these improvements, although the State of Oregon and some tribes did not sign the accords and litigation has continued.

Council members Bill Booth of Idaho and Ted Ferrioli of Oregon raised the question of the accord renewal while Mercier updated the committee about BPA's progress with its Fish and Wildlife Program funding cuts.

Booth wanted to know how the Council should deal with uncertainty of funding as they consider projects, such as a master plan for Pacific lamprey that had just been presented to the committee for approval. He asked Mercier when BPA might make a decision about extending the accords. "You're putting us in a little bit of a bind," he said. "I urge you to make it a priority to get those accord deals wrapped up."

Ferrioli said he doesn't think there has been enough transparency in the process. "I don't understand why there isn't coordination between Bonneville and the Council on the accords."

Mercier replied that "many of the Council states are accord partners as well," although he noted one is in litigation, which "created a bit of an odd forum." He said despite the uncertainties, the Council can still work to prioritize programs and offer policy on what should be funded first. He said he hopes to provide the committee with more information at the Council's August meeting.

Few details have emerged publicly about a new agreement, although Mainzer called it "a very, very big issue for us" during the agency's May 1 quarterly review session.

He pointed to successes over the last 10 years, which include restoring more than 8,000 acres of estuary floodplain and reopening nearly 4,000 miles of spawning grounds throughout the Columbia and Snake river basins.

Mainzer said that while the accords provide continuity and stability as agencies work to develop Biological Opinions and an EIS, a new agreement "could take away flexibility to quickly adjust programs and reduce costs in order to meet changing market, legal and compliance requirements that may recur over the coming years. So this is going to have to be a very thoughtful decision in terms of how we accomplish these competing objectives."

He also noted that the agreement expires in September. "Given that expiration date Bonneville is carefully considering the potential benefits, costs, risks, duration, spending allocation process and approach to customer engagement associated with extending the Fish Accords," he said. "The accords have certainly done much to strengthen tribal and state partnerships in the fish and wildlife realm. But we must also work within the financial constraints facing Bonneville and insure we're making investments that support the proposed actions in the next biological opinion."

The Fish and Wildlife Committee also learned about seven potential Fish and Wildlife Program reductions now under discussion. Mercier said he's had close to a dozen sit-down consultations with those receiving funds, and most funding recipients have taken a collaborative approach to finding ways to support BPA's effort to reduce costs of projects without adversely impacting fish. He said his conversations with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho were an example of how BPA hopes to work with partners to make budget adjustments. "They really met us part way, and we put together a work plan for the next four years" that reduces BPA's contribution with little to no anticipated negative impacts to fish projects," he said.

Other cutbacks reported to the committee were:

  • Reduce, but not eliminate, technical assistance of some umbrella projects and estuary habitat work.
  • Reduce the $7-million Water Transaction Program by $1 million.
  • Reduce StreamNet funding by at least $54,000, and funding to other data management efforts.
  • Eliminate funding over the next three years to Select Area Fisheries Enhancement, a program that was supposed to--but hasn't--become self sufficient by about 2011, which provides fish for harvest augmentation.
  • Reduce Lower Snake River Comp budget. Mercier said the budget has gone from $17 million to $34 million over the last 10 years, and BPA wants to bring it back to about $31 million.
  • Eliminate most funding for CHaMP and ISEMP projects to save about $5 million.

Tony Grover, director of the Council's fish and wildlife division, said he was impressed by Mercier's approach to the meetings with funding recipients, coming with ample information about the proposed cuts and staff who could immediately answer questions, which facilitated the atmosphere of cooperation. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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