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GAO: Feds Need Better Measure of Salmon Recovery Success

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 6, 2002

The federal Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead recovery effort can list $3.8 billion in costs over the past 20 years, but can not identify a biological benefits bottom line, according to a report recently released by U.S. General Accounting Office.

"Federal agencies have undertaken many types of recovery actions and, although these actions are generally viewed as resulting in higher numbers of returning adult salmon and steelhead, there is little conclusive evidence to quantify the extent of their effects on returning fish populations," according to the report from Congress' investigative agency.

The report was requested by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water, Committee on Environment and Public Works. The senator received a preview of the analysis of federal anadromous fish recovery efforts that span 11 federal agencies and 65 associated groups.

The report says the 11 federal agencies estimate they spent almost $1.8 billion from fiscal year 1982 through Fiscal year 1996 on recovery actions. Spending has escalated since, with the agencies estimating that $1.5 billion was spent from FY 1997 through FY 2001 on efforts "specifically designed to recover Columbia River salmon and steelhead."

"The data to quantify the effects of these actions on fish populations are generally not available because of a variety of factors, including large yearly natural fluctuations in returning adult salmon and steelhead, changing weather and ocean conditions, and the length of time it takes for project benefits to materialize," the report says. "However, federal agency officials are confident that their recovery actions are having positive effects and have resulted in higher numbers of returning adult salmon and steelhead than would have occurred otherwise."

NMFS says that the GAO comments are an "oversimplification of the state of knowledge regarding salmon recovery efforts." NMFS' comments on the draft report are included as an appendix to the final report.

The NMFS said that it has utilized "extensive agency and published, peer-reviewed science that documents at least the proximate effects of salmon recovery efforts." NMFS cited detailed information available about the reduction in adult and juvenile fish mortality as a result of fish passage engineering efforts by the Corp of Engineers at the Federal Columbia River Power System facilities. The agency said, as an example, that juvenile survival estimates have increased from 10-13 percent for Snake River spring/summer chinook salmon during the 1970s to 31-59 percent during the late 1990s.

The final GAO report acknowledged the availability of the studies cited by NMFS but said, "at best, they estimate or approximate the effect of recovery efforts." The juvenile survival study estimates survival improvements down through the system "but does not quantify how many of these juveniles return as adults. The number of returning adults is important because other studies have shown that using bypass facilities increases salmon and steelhead mortality downstream."

NMFS' initial comments also said that the agency and others are "developing and implementing monitoring and modeling methodologies to document the effects of recovery efforts."

The GAO final report recognized those efforts, but said "until those efforts are completed and results quantified, the full extent of the recovery efforts will not be known."

The GAO report said their investigators noted two "issues" that may affect the recovery effort: the development of a strategic recovery plan to direct overall recovery efforts along with annual performance and funding plans to implement the strategic plan, and the development of a system to track ESA consultations to ensure that recovery projects are not unnecessarily delayed by the consultation process."

Official ESA recovery plans for the 12 listed salmon and steelhead species have been slow to take shape. The GAO report said that a NMFS plan of action for the lower Columbia River is expected in 2004. Middle and upper Columbia River plans will come after that, "but no specific completion dates have been set," the report said.

"A basinwide strategic recovery plan that identifies overall recovery goals, estimated total costs, and specific agencies' actions and an annual performance plan that identifies annual funds available and projects to be completed would help the agencies to focus their actions and provide a means to assess overall recovery efforts," the report said.

The GAO report has drawn a variety of responses. Some say it reveals a taxpayer boondoggle. Others admit the process is imperfect, but insist that the ultimate goal -- recovery of salmon and steelhead stocks -- justifies a considerable investment.

"Any group or entity that's in the public sector ought to be prepared to be scrutinized," said Larry Cassidy, chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council. He said the federal agencies, and others involved in the recovery effort, need to be accountable for money spent.

The Council, with two appointees from each of the Columbia Basin's four states, has responsibilities for enhancing fish and wildlife and ensuring that the region as an adequate power supply. NPPC fish and wildlife program funding from Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers revenue is a part of the GAO report total.

Cassidy admitted that much work remains to get the federal and regional recovery efforts coordinated and bring overall efficiencies. But he said he didn't feel the GAO report properly characterized what is a very complicated effort, or the ultimate economic benefit of restored salmon runs.

"Things are headed in a positive direction but we still have a long way to go," Cassidy said.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission spokesman Charles Hudson too said the report lacked perspective, and ignored fish restoration gains.

"We have to keep in mind that the $3.3 billion has been spent over 20 years in a four state region and most of it has been spent on good projects," Hudson said. "To say this has been a taxpayer boondoggle is inaccurate."

CRITFC's member tribes often do not agree with how the money is spent or how the problem of salmon recovery is approached. Hudson said, for example, the aggressive non-dam breaching strategy adopted in NMFS' 2000 biological opinion, and the federal All-H strategy, goes against a heavy weight of scientific knowledge that says lower Snake River dam-breaching would be the single most effective restoration tool for Snake River stocks.

Many of the measures described in the BiOp, such as improving and protecting habitat, are worthwhile, Hudson said. But the treaty tribes have higher standards than merely avoiding extinction of the listed species, he said. Restoring fish populations to sustainable, harvestable levels requires a strong federal commitment of funding and aggressive action.

Salmon for All's Steve Fick agrees that efficiencies in federal spending can be found. But Fick, the owner of an Astoria, Ore., commercial fish processing plant says a strong investment in salmon recovery is warranted.

"The salmon is an icon in the Northwest," Fick said. If populations are enhanced and maintained, they can fuel other segments of the economy.

"This is cost of business," he said.

Of the $1.5 billion spent over the past five years, $986 million was spent directly by the federal agencies and $537 million provided by the federal agencies to states, tribes and other nonfederal entities.

Four federal agencies accounted for about 88 percent of the $968 million spent over the past five years:

NMFS was next on the list with $48.5 million in expenditures during the recent five-year period and the Bonneville Power Administration was sixth at $26 million.

BPA topped the list of federal agencies by passing through $378.7 million to non-federal entities during the past five years. Those entities include the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, Columbia basin tribes and organizations such as the NPPC and Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. NMFS passed through some $81.3 million to non-federal entities for salmon recovery efforts. About two-thirds of the total provided non-federal entities went to states and tribes.

The GAO report notes that Bonneville "also uses ratepayer revenues to (1) reimburse the U.S. Treasury for the hydroelectric share of Corps' BOR and Fish and Wildlife operation and maintenance costs and other non-capital expenditures for fish and wildlife and (2) fund the hydroelectric share of capital investment costs of the Corps' and BOR's fish and wildlife projects." BPA estimates that O&M reimbursements for the recent five-year period were $215.1 million and $453.9 million was spent on capital investments and interest.

BPA's Jeffrey K. Stiers, in comments on the draft GAO report, said that BPA did not want a double counting of those funds. But he stressed the need for a fuller reporting of the source --ratepayers that rely on energy generated by the FCRPS. The GAO says the final report was revised to reflect those concerns.

"Bonneville encourages GAO to include in its final report a complete discussion of the kinds of Federal Columbia River Power System costs our ratepayers incur -- direct costs, capital costs, reimburse costs, replacement power and lost revenues," Stiers wrote.

Those costs "were over $3 billion dollars, not simply the $378 million shown in the draft Report," Stiers said.

"... whether Bonneville uses receipts deposited in the Treasury from power marketing revenues, or funds borrowed from the Treasury and repaid with market-based interest, our recovery costs are covered completely by regional ratepayers, not the nation's taxpayers," Stiers wrote.

Crapo says the report confirms that anadromous fish recovery efforts in the basin must rapidly improve if they are to succeed.

Crapo has in the past proposed changes in the Endangered Species Act that improve the consultation process. He has also offered specific measures and appropriations proposals regarding anadromous fish recovery.

Crapo said the GAO report on salmon and steelhead recovery contains some key findings concerning Section 7 ESA consultation relative to the present salmon and steelhead recovery efforts. The report also contends the present federally-managed system needs much better financial accountability, and that a recovery plan must be quickly developed.

"The report shows clearly we have to spend this money much more wisely. The focus now should be on learning from past mistakes and successes and quickly deciding where we go from here to get the job done," Crapo said. "The findings of the report confirm the need to rapidly improve the process of recovery. I will continue to work with the Bush Administration and all the federal agencies, states, tribes, and others to determine how to implement the needed changes."

A national budget watchdog organization says the recovery effort is not only bogged down, but misdirected.

"There is really no evidence that this massive federal investment has been effective at all," said Autumn Hanna, policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "We are sending billions of dollars down the river with no clear results and no accountability for how these agencies spend our money."

Of the $3.3 billion dollars the GAO estimates was spent on salmon, $590 million of that went to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers programs to barge and truck fish around the dams and "improve" fish passage at the dams with expensive, elaborate screen and bypass systems.

"Barging and trucking are not effective salmon recovery tools and will not help declining fish populations. Boat rides for fish and 'fish-friendly' turbines don't make fiscal or scientific sense," continued Hanna. "These technological fixes will not save salmon from extinction. Continuing to federally fund this taxpayer boondoggle creates a massive long-term burden on the treasury."

GAO's concerns about the lack of a unified implementation and funding plan for federal salmon recovery efforts should be noted Hanna said.

"The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. The federal agencies needs a coordinated plan to effectively implement the federal salmon recovery measures," she said. "Bureaucratic bungling wastes money and harms salmon."

Related Links:
GAO report: August 26, 2002 Report

Barry Espenson
GAO: Feds Need Better Measure of Salmon Recovery Success
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 6, 2002

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