The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's efforts to evaluate its Fish and Wildlife Program's performance and to be more involved in its budget changes were taken up at the Council's Dec. 10 meeting, but several associated tasks remain undetermined.

The unresolved items include whether a new addendum to the Council's 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program will include a provision requiring the Bonneville Power Administration to notify the Council before making budget changes of 5 percent or more to any of the 350-plus projects it funds to mitigate the impacts of hydroelectric facilities on fish and wildlife. That provision will be discussed over the next few weeks and reviewed again at the Council's January meeting.

Meanwhile, the Council decided to delay adoption of a different portion of the Fish and Wildlife Program addendum while its staff works with tribes, states and federal agencies to hammer out language spelling out how the program's performance will be assessed.

Required every five years under the Northwest Power Act, the Council has been working since May 2018 to revise its 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program, which is used to guide the Council on what projects to support with some $250 million each year in BPA funds.

In previous revisions, the Council has rewritten its program during the amendment process. This time, after seeking program amendment recommendations from the region, the Council decided to retain the 2014 program and make revisions through an addendum.

Part I of the addendum, titled Program Goals, Objectives, and Performance Indicators, is now tentatively scheduled for adoption in July 2020 after the Council collaborates with tribes and agencies to iron out the language. A new draft of Part I will be released for public comment, and public hearings will be held prior to adoption, Council Acting Fish and Wildlife Director Patty O'Toole told the Council before it voted to delay adoption.

However, the Council still expects to adopt Part II of the addendum—Program Implementation—after making final revisions at its Jan. 14-15 meeting.

One of those revisions will determine when BPA notifies the Council if funding changes are proposed in any of about 350 projects funded through the program.

The draft addendum, which went out for public comment in July, says Bonneville should report prospectively to the Council when it proposes changes to individual budgets of 5 percent or more from the prior year, or within the fiscal year, which is reviewed quarterly.

It also states BPA should report after the fact when individual project budgets change by less than 5 percent.

O'Toole told the Council the provision was included in response to concerns in the region that—while understanding Bonneville's need to hold down costs of the Fish and Wildlife Program—the Council needs to oversee those cuts to ensure projects stay intact.

She also noted several comments on the proposed provision warned it wouldn't work. Some suggested that being notified of a 5 percent change would lead the Council to micromanage projects, and others suggested those budget discussions should be between project sponsors and Bonneville.

Bonneville's comment to the Council said that while it continues to support independent science, regional collaboration, strong partnerships and ongoing communication with the Council, the provision "imputes a budget oversight role to the Council that is not based in the statute and that properly resides with Bonneville."

The comment added that "initiation of Council review for budget changes of 5 percent or more would divert a substantial amount of time and effort, for both Bonneville and project sponsors, to a process that does not provide any apparent value or address anything more than a hypothetical concern."

The agency went on to explain that certain project sponsors have agreed to budgets that are adequate for implementation, and have established tools that promote efficient use of mitigation funding.

After explaining the concerns, O'Toole provided potential options for the Council, which included keeping the 5 percent provision; increasing the trigger to 15 or 20 percent; or have no budgetary trigger and focus instead on the principal of receiving regular updates about the budget. "We had a number of comments that 5 percent is too narrow, too small, and gets the Council down into the weeds," which is not where they need to be, she said.

Oregon Council members Richard Devlin and Ted Ferrioli both argued to retain a provision that included at least some trigger for notifying the Council when budgetary changes occur. "I don't think the intent is to hypermanage" each project, said Devlin, who is also the Council's vice chairman. When cuts are being made, he said, the Council needs to stay informed so it can assume responsibility.

Ferrioli added that while he supports Bonneville's efforts to reduce costs and be accountable, BPA doesn't have the authority to change what the Council has recommended and approved. "At its base, we're really asking, 'Whose program is it?'" He added that the trigger for notifying the Council could be 15 or 20 percent change in a budget, but he feels a trigger would help ensure decisions to cut budgets aren't made unilaterally. "It's a great principle to hold to. I'm not married to the math," he said.

Council member Guy Norman, who represents Washington, said he thinks the important part of the provision are the principles behind it—communication, coordination and an opportunity for the Council to weigh in. Other members also expressed support for the principle behind the provision, and wanted assurances Bonneville will communicate significant changes in any of its projects.

O'Toole said Council staff will work with BPA to figure out language to consider at the January meeting for a provision ensuring the Council will remain informed.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.