BPA Cuts to Salmon Programs Draw Fireby William McCall, Associated Press
The Register-Guard, February 21, 2003
PORTLAND -- Salmon protection programs would lose about $47 million under cuts tentatively approved Thursday by regional planners struggling to compensate for a Bonneville Power Administration budget shortfall that could reach $1.2 billion by 2006.
The Northwest Power Planning Council ended three days of meetings with a draft conservation budget for Bonneville intended to stretch limited funding for hundreds of fish restoration projects in Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington state.
The eight members of the council - two from each state - planned to review the draft and add any final comment before they formally issue it to BPA chief Steve Wright.
But council members said they still had many questions about how Bonneville will deal with financial problems resulting mostly from the Western energy crisis in 2001.
"I'm still not convinced there isn't enough money to stop trashing fish and wildlife programs,'' said Melinda Eden, an Oregon attorney who is the newest member of the council.
Eden and other council members questioned accounting changes the BPA recently adopted that force conservation project managers and contractors to complete their work before they are paid.
Bonneville previously had allowed funding to carry over into the following budget year if work was not finished in time.
Gene Derfler, former Oregon Senate president and also a recent council member, said he was surprised Bonneville had not been more strict with accounting before the changes were made to avoid carrying over funding for unfinished work, late billings and estimates Bonneville officials admitted were off by as much as 50 percent.
"I ran a business for many years and if I didn't know what I was obligated to pay for each year I'd have had real trouble running that business,'' Derfler said.
Sarah McNary, Bonneville's fish and wildlife manager, defended the changes, saying the federal power marketing agency needs to avoid tying up millions of dollars for work delays. At the same time, she said, BPA is trying to avoid eliminating projects by spreading the cuts around and pacing the work.
"Let me be very clear that we have very accurate accounting,'' McNary told council members.
Bonneville had planned to spend $186 million a year on salmon restoration and other wildlife programs over its five-year wholesale electricity rate schedule for 2001-06 but Wright told the council last year the agency's conservation budget would have to be trimmed to $139 million.
Northwest Indian tribes, who manage many of the projects, had recommended at least $242 million. The tribes have already called for a full audit of Bonneville's conservation budget, warning that cuts could result in salmon run declines.
"This is a huge mistake on their part,'' said Tim Weaver, an attorney for the Yakama tribe.
BPA's budget shortfall began in 2001 when prices exploded after drought reduced hydroelectric capacity on Columbia River dams, utility deregulation failed in California and the now-bankrupt Enron Corp. manipulated markets.
Bonneville is still is trying to recover from purchasing high-priced electricity on the open market during the crisis.
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