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NW Fishletter #386, Oct. 2, 2018

[7] Draft Fish Accords Draw Wide Range of Comments

Tribes, agencies, organizations and individuals offered some praise for fish restoration work done under the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, which expire at the end of September, but they also found plenty to criticize in the Bonneville Power Administration's proposal to extend the agreements for four more years.

Fourteen comments were posted on the agency's website following a 30-day comment period that ended Sept. 26.

In separate letters, the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes worried that the extended Accords undermine the process for funding fish and wildlife mitigation under the Northwest Power Act, as well as the process underway to amend the fish and wildlife program.

Utilities and groups representing ratepayers focused on BPA's financial situation, telling the agency that the extensions don't do enough to control costs when there's still so much uncertainty in power markets, environmental requirements such as spill, and the potential for low water years.

Conservation groups chimed in with criticisms about the lack of success in recovering Endangered Species Act-listed fish, and a failure to put the Accords through a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis.

"It is almost inconceivable that someone would sign a long-term contract without clear price protection or off-ramps where prices are today and with this level of uncertainty over BPA future costs," wrote Roger Gray, CEO of Northwest Requirements Utilities.

He said he expected a more thorough review of the current Accords, and the use of a business case for projects that will be extended. Instead, he wrote, BPA issued a three-page fact sheet on Sept. 18 outlining the accomplishments of the existing accords, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gray also noted that Bonneville is likely to move forward with the proposed extensions, but made several suggestions that include requiring business cases for all fish and wildlife programs, including the Accords, and a formal annual evaluation and review process to assess results against objectives.

Utilities and other ratepayer advocates had similar concerns.

The Public Power Council noted that since the Accords were first signed in 2008, BPA rates have increased 35 percent.

"The Accords, with their 2.5 percent annual escalations, were a significant part of those rate increases," the letter submitted by PCC's senior policy analyst Bo Downen states.

Downen argued that BPA's fish and wildlife decisions should be viewed through two lenses--expected biological benefits and impacts to BPA's overall cost-competitiveness. Whether Bonneville can "turn the corner on power costs" will impact whether PPC members will purchase BPA power in the future, the letter states. "Those future power purchases, from a competitive BPA, will provide the revenue stream that funds these mitigation efforts and all other BPA programs," it noted.

Steven Kern, Cowlitz County PUD general manger, said the $448 million extension only offers 3 percent savings over the original Accords.

"Given BPA's ever increasing rate trajectory and already burdensome increase estimated at 4 percent to power ratepayers for 2020 and 2021, the funding sources for this program could be threatened if changes are not seen soon," he wrote. "This should weigh heavily on BPA as the customer base could look to make changes post 2028."

Snohomish County PUD also urged Bonneville to include language where all parties agree to actively pursue efficiencies and cost-sharing opportunities, and where projects undergo regular evaluations, with funding discontinued for those that fail to demonstrate "measurable positive impacts on fish and wildlife."

SnoPUD also suggested that BPA could use alternative experts, in addition to the Fish Passage Center, as the entity named to provide analysis and evaluation of salmonoid survival, productivity and abundance to "ensure the selected expert remains accountable."

Terry Flores, executive director of RiverPartners, noted that BPA has limited time to analyze and respond to comments before the agreements expire at the end of September, and so she expected no significant changes to the drafts.

However, voicing similar concerns as other ratepayer advocates, Flores concluded, "RiverPartners asks BPA to adhere to the principles and commitments it has made to its customers: holding the Accord parties to their commitments, aggressively managing fish and wildlife budgets, finding savings and/or re-prioritizing program costs to offset any further cost increases, including the Accords, and continuing to ensure there is science review of Accord measures through the NPCC review process before projects receive funding."

The Nez Perce Tribe, which has not been part of the Accords, wrote that rather than spending too much, Bonneville is only doing what's minimally required in its trust responsibilities to tribes.

Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, questioned whether the 2008 Accords were effective, and, therefore whether they should be extended.

"At heart, the Accords were aimed at the hope of discontinuing litigation over the operation of the hydrosystem," Wheeler wrote. "That goal was never reached."

While not questioning the "important work" done to help restore Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed species, Wheeler's letter does question whether this mitigation work is more important than the $30 million in projects cut under BPA's fish and wildlife program.

The tribe also points to several statements in the proposed extensions as "mischaracterizations" and even "disingenuous," given the federal court decisions overturning the 2008 and 2014 biological opinions to mitigate for ESA-listed fish as unlawful.

The Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes both wrote of concerns that the Accords fail to use the process set out by the Northwest Power Act to fund mitigation projects through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program.

Both tribes say Bonneville is requiring support for the Action Agencies' opinions on some subjects in the fish and wildlife program amendment process. Their letters mention specific instances where the Accords undermine the fish and wildlife program, including a requirement that the Colville Tribes cannot use fish from Chief Joseph Hatchery in its efforts to reintroduce anadromous fish above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.

Meanwhile, conservation groups pushed for more effective strategies for achieving recovery of ESA-listed species.

Rob Masonis, vice president of Western conservation for Trout Unlimited, wrote that he supports the extension, and appreciates that they have achieved important outcomes.

"However, after a decade of major investment in restoration projects, Columbia Basin wild salmon and steelhead continue to be imperiled with limited progress toward recovery," he wrote.

Masonis urged Bonneville to ensure that future Fish Accords should clearly explain the value of actions, and how they fit with overall recovery.

Finally, Advocates for the West, a coalition of Idaho conservation groups, expressed concern over the lack of opportunity to comment prior to the release of the draft extensions, and said that BPA has failed to conduct a NEPA analysis on its proposal to extend the Accords.

The coalition asks both BPA and the state of Idaho not to sign an agreement that supports Bonneville's proposed block spill operation, which would vary spill levels to investigate impacts on fish, "since it will harm endangered fish that need additional help now."

They also urged not endorsing one that "constrains the State of Idaho to endorse and support federal positions rather than reach its own independent judgments." -K.C. Mehaffey

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