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BPA Releases EIS on Fish and Wildlife Implementation, Funding

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 23, 2003

An environmental impact statement released by the Bonneville Power Administration earlier this month represents a key step toward its goal of building a "comprehensive and consistent policy to guide its implementation and funding of fish and wildlife mitigation and recovery efforts."

The federal power marketing agency says the study is unique in that it examines all the ongoing regional fish and wildlife actions and programs and distills them down to five broad themes ranging from a natural river focus on one extreme to a commercial river focus on the other. The 800-page EIS took three years to produce.

The documents picks from the middle of that range in selecting a preferred alternative that "encompasses policy actions that have already been identified in other regional forums or processes, and by other decision makers."

"BPA has identified a preferred alternative in the EIS, which is actually a combination of two alternatives," said Charles Alton, BPA project manager. "A key point about that choice is that it is designed to be flexible and respond to future changes."

The report includes three volumes. It will be posted on BPA's fish and wildlife web site at Copies will be available via computer compact disks.

The document initially is intended to fulfill BPA's obligation, under the National Environmental Policy Act, to understand the environmental consequences of its fish and wildlife-related actions. Alton said a notice of the document's availability was published in the May 9 Federal Register. A record of decision -- an official selection of the agency's "policy direction" -- is forthcoming no sooner than June 9 from administrator Steve Wright. Alton would not speculate whether that ROD would follow strictly the EIS preferred alternative.

The EIS also reflects the agency's desire of "unified planning approach" to address the many demands on ratepayer revenues for fish and wildlife work. Those responsibilities include trust and treaty accountability to the region's Native American tribes and obligations under both the Northwest Power Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The document's summary points out that, since the Power Act was passed in 1980, it has spent $6 billion on fish and wildlife activities. ESA hydrosystem operational requirements since 1995 have also reduced the agency's effective power generation capability by about 1,000 megawatts.

"BPA is working hard, through its implementation of the National Marine Fisheries Service's and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinions, and the Pacific Northwest Power Planning Council's Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, to complete a unified fish and wildlife mitigation and recovery policy," according to the EIS abstract.

"However, the timing and ultimate success of that effort is uncertain. In any event, BPA is obligated to fund and implement fish and wildlife mitigating and recovery actions before, during and after these policy-level deliberations," the abstract said. "BPA also has a statutory obligation to understand the environmental consequences of its actions and to provide an opportunity for the public to participate in agency decision making.

"This FEIS is designed to meet the immediate and future needs of agency decision makers and the public for information regarding the impacts of mitigation and recovery actions proposed for implementation by BPA.

"BPA does not intend to unilaterally select a policy direction for the region. However, if the region fails to agree upon a policy direction, BPA must still implement and fund fish and wildlife mitigation and recovery strategy. The BPA administrator's initial decision, as well as future tiered decisions, will rely on this FEIS environmental analysis and its comparison of the alternatives against the purposes of action."

"Any policy adopted for fish and wildlife actions in the region will have environmental impacts," Alton said. "This study may be the first to test nearly everything we presently know and do in the region for fish and wildlife."

Developing the study actually started in 1998 when those representing many different fish and wildlife views gathered to identify more than 40 different issues that any regional fish and wildlife policy must address. In the new environmental study, the five broad themes were tested against each of those issues.

The document analyzes potential policy directions, and their potential environmental and economic consequences as compared to the status quo. A summary of that status quo situation reads: "No coordinated regional plan -- multiple governmental actions, and unclear direction on species recovery with conflicting laws, jurisdictions, and scientific analyses."

The options analyzed include:

On the natural focus end of the spectrum, the document generally says that the costs of the mitigation and recovery efforts are the highest of any of the five scenarios analyzed, as are the benefits to the natural environment. As the analysis moves from natural to weak stocks to sustainable use to strong stocks to commerce focus for mitigation and recovery, the social and economic costs lessen, and in many cases produce benefits. At the commerce end of the range, the environmental conditions are most often worsened.

The BPA preferred alternative stands, for the most part, in the middle. It is a "blend of the weak stock focus and sustainable use focus alternative directions."

The preferred alternative's intent is to "protect weak stocks of fish and achieve biological performance standards, as set forth in the BiOps, while sustaining overall populations of fish and wildlife for their economic and cultural value."

The preferred alternative focuses on enhancing fish and wildlife habitat, modifying hydro operation and structures and reforming hatcheries to both increase listed stock populations and provide harvest opportunities in the long term.

"It gives priority to improving water quality and habitat for ESA-listed stocks of fish over economic activity, stopping short of breaching dams," according to the EIS. "It emphasizes human management, in a least-cost manner, to recovery listed species and restore and maintain sustainable populations of fish and wildlife, while recognizing that ultimately the fate of the listed species may be significantly determined by weather and ocean conditions rather than human action.

The document says that the main guidance for the preferred alternative "in regard to using the unified regional planning approach" comes from the Federal Caucus' Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy, the BiOps' 1- and 5-year implementation planning and progress reporting efforts and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's 2000 Fish and Wildlife program, the Tribal Vision and the Corps' 2002 Record of Decision on the Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
BPA Releases EIS on Fish and Wildlife Implementation, Funding
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 23, 2003

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