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NW Fishletter #392, April 1, 2019
 In Throes Of Change, BPA Describes Issues Facing Fish And Wildlife Program
A top Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) official met with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council March 13 to discuss a multitude of changes now facing Bonneville, reinforcing the need to follow its 2018 strategic plan, which includes keeping Fish and Wildlife Program (FWP) costs at or below the rate of inflation.
Scott Armentrout, VP of environment, fish and wildlife, suggested that in order to meet that goal, Bonneville and the Council will need to prioritize BPA-funded projects based on their biological effectiveness and whether they mitigate for impacts to fish and wildlife from the Federal Columbia River Power System.
"Because the power market has changed so much, the competitiveness of power has required us to ask a lot of questions," Armentrout told the Council.
Those questions often relate to whether projects have a nexus to BPA's obligation to mitigate for fish and wildlife impacts caused by the federal hydropower system, and whether it's by law, or because of policies or other commitments.
Armentrout said questions are also being raised within Bonneville about whether fish projects are permanent, or if they can be considered complete after some amount of time.
The discussion came as the Council is working to amend its Fish and Wildlife Program, and just over a year after Bonneville unveiled its five-year strategic plan to remain financially viable over the next decade, as renewables and other market forces have changed the playing field.
Last June, BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer visited the Council to stress the need to cut some $30 million from the Council's Fish and Wildlife Program, which is funded by BPA. In January, the agency gave the Council its final report on cuts to the fiscal year 2019 program, totaling about $6.4 million. BPA noted that the budget cutting is a "work in progress" and that some projects currently funded at half of 2018 levels will be eliminated next year.
Armentrout addressed the Council for the first time since joining BPA in November. He was welcomed, and also questioned about identifying biological effectiveness, cuts that have already been made, and what to do about projects that are locked in to the funding cycle.
Ted Ferrioli, Council member from Oregon, urged Armentrout to commit to more coordination between the Council and BPA when making cuts or prioritizing projects. "The rubber's going to meet the road with the commitment to stay at or below inflation," Ferrioli said. And implicit in that expectation is the need for prioritization. "If we're not coordinated, it's going to be very contentious," he noted.
In his presentation, Armentrout noted that the FWP has been ongoing for decades, that Bonneville has already spent billions of dollars to fund it, and that it continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
A draft Council report on the 2018 program costs shows that BPA has spent $16.8 billion on it since 1981. Its direct expenses in fiscal year 2018 totaled $258.7 million, an increase of $4 million from fiscal year 2017.
Armentrout outlined many of the uncertainties now facing BPA that could impact program costs. He noted that action agencies will be issuing a draft environmental impact statement for Columbia River system Operations environmental impact statement (EIS) in February, followed by a final decision.
"That will be a big milestone, setting the stage for the next couple of decades or even longer into the future," he said.
Increased spill and dam breaching proposals will be fully examined in the EIS, he said, adding, "It'll be the most comprehensive analysis we've seen for both of those issues that have long been with us."
In addition, a new flexible spill agreement will go into effect this year, he said. Also, the Columbia Basin Fish Accord extensions are expected to be in place at least until the EIS is complete, but cautioning, "Our intent is to continue those extensions as long as we can, while leaving room to reassess."
The U.S. Department of State is negotiating with Canada to modernize the Columbia River Treaty, which could mean significant changes to hydroelectric operations that have been in place for a generation.
Changes are also occurring on the scientific front, in terms of understanding impacts from ocean conditions, climate change, and salmon predators, he said.
While answering questions from the Council, Armentrout acknowledged that wildlife projects often have well-defined milestones that can be reached, while fish projects tend to require continued funding. He said Bonneville recognizes that the Council's fish and wildlife restoration projects, especially those related to recovering fish populations, will never reach an endpoint. "It's not going to be complete. It's just not. It's going to be an ongoing obligation," he agreed.
However, he added, Bonneville does hope to see more transparency that describes why specific projects are or are not being funded, and uses business-like approaches to the projects that are supported. He said a lot of projects may be worthwhile, but may not be connected to BPA's obligations.
From land purchases or long-term research studies to maintaining and operating hatcheries, there aren't a lot of "exit ramps" in the program's committed funding, he said. When there are big chunks of the program costs that are not optional, they are left with only a small portion of the program that can be cut in order to rein in costs, he said.
Armentrout said that he's looking for the Council's help to identify priorities and areas of investment that are critical, and noted, "We are not the only funding agency out there, or the only one with obligations" to mitigate for impacts to fish and wildlife. -K.C. Mehaffey
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