Economists Suggest Ways to
by Bill Rudolph
A panel of independent economists made more than a dozen recommendations to improve the Columbia Basin's Fish and Wildlife program being amended by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
In a March 20 report, the Independent Economic Advisory Board said some of its recommendations could be pretty spendy, but might save money in the long run.
The report began on a note of humility. "We are unsure if the potential costs of these efforts would be money well spent. For now, we hope to encourage a dialog among stakeholders, scientists and planners regarding how to proceed."
With so many new initiatives that could compete for funding, the IEAB said the Council should consider developing a science initiative to assess the state of "achievement metrics", and look at the value of comparing metrics across types of projects, along with the research needs to develop standard metrics.
"New initiatives involving more regions (Columbia River estuary and Willamette basin, for example) and research on toxic contaminants are being proposed, and native and non-native species that received little attention in the past now request and receive more funding" said the new report.
"Anticipated IEAB F&W Program maintenance and replacement costs for existing projects may be increasing," it continued. "At the same time, hydrosystem revenues may decrease as a result of new initiatives suggested by recovery plans and proposed spill experiments. Climate change could also have significant effects on the amount, timing and value of hydropower generation."
But there is no indication that BPA is prepared to add any new spending to the direct F&W budget through the term of the current hydro BiOp, which ends in 2018. Planning budgets through 2018 show BPA expecting to support BiOp, Fish Accord measures and the general F&W program.
The agency temporarily cut funding to several major entities in 2013, as the budget ballooned beyond expectations. FY 2013 spending was about $243 million, about $6 million less than what was spent in FY 2012. But spending in FY 2014 and 2015 is heading up again, to $254 million and $260 million, respectively.
Back in 2000, the direct F&W budget was slightly over $100 million a year, and climbed to nearly $150 million a year by 2008. But it took a big jump in 2009 to $185 million when the 2008 BiOp was implemented, and funding for the Accords began, adding nearly another billion in F&W spending over the 10-year salmon plan.
The economists said it has been hard to measure the success of many past restoration actions, since they were not measured by fish numbers, or acres of habitat.
"Going forward, there should be less uncertainty about what physical metrics are appropriate and the expected amount of achievement," said the report. They recommended that standardized achievement metrics be developed for estuary actions, predator management, water transactions and non-native fish projects.
The report also suggested that Council staff, science boards and project proponents should develop a full range of alternatives before a funding recommendation is made. It could take a lot of work, but the potential payoff in cost-effective analysis and better project design would be worth it, the panel said.
The economists said there were other ways the region might save money, too. They recommended looking into boosting the removal of non-native fish as the most effective way of increasing native fish populations.
Citing a 2009 federal report, the economists said predation on out-migrating smolts by non-native species like smallmouth bass and walleye was "roughly equivalent to the productivity declines attributed to habitat loss and degradation," but consumed less than 0.3 percent of the nearly $400 million in BPA funding from 2007 to 2009 on directed studies of impacts from non-indigenous species, and less than 1 percent of the funding spent to control nonindigenous fish species.
The report suggested finding new ways to manage popular sport fisheries on non-native fishes that prey on outgoing smolts, to reduce impacts on native fish runs.
The next F&W program should also incorporate assumptions about future climate change into planning tools, said the economists. Past hydrologic history "can no longer be assumed to be representative of future conditions," said the report, which recommended specific, quantitative assumptions for revised future development conditions.
The report recommended development of an issue paper that studies the potential effects of ocean acidification on fish species in the Council's program. It also suggested a comparison of the costs of management actions that deter salmon-eating sea lions to adult-equivalent mortality and costs from other projects that target improvement in adult fish numbers, to see if "additional management is warranted."
Until the science that estimates salmon survival is improved, the economists said specific estuary project sponsors should lease land or study buy/lease options before purchasing property. "The cost-effectiveness of many possible estuarine actions should be considered. However, at this time it appears that there is little research that can demonstrate increased salmonid survival from estuarine actions with high certainty."
The panel also suggested that future costs to BPA of implementing the recovery plan for the Willamette should be estimated, since they could be significant. Unfortunately, they said, the plan includes very little cost information. "NMFS is required by the ESA to provide costs in their recovery plans; perhaps they should accept some of the responsibility and cost required to develop better cost information," said the report.
The report also told policymakers to consider the possibility of an external review of future financial needs, the ability to meet those needs, and alternatives for financing those needs, for the entire Fish and Wildlife program, but noted the costs and effort required to implement this recommendation might be "significant."
The last recommendation calls for developing information "regarding how large, sudden, and unexpected damages to human, natural and infrastructure assets within the Council's responsibilities might be corrected or mitigated in a timely manner."
The panel said having a plan, processes, and potential funding in place before such damage occurs, could help reduce the damage and its cost. The report said development of this recommendation could be helped by looking at the case histories of the Mt. Saint Helens disaster, the current situation with the crack in Wanapum Dam, and planning for the possible invasion of zebra and quagga mussels.
"The disaster management plan might consider how existing plans and protocols might perform in unprecedented dry years and hot summer weather," said the report. "The relevant plans might include juvenile transportation, juvenile bypass spill, water acquisition, and hatchery management.
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