BPA Funds Only Two of 10 'Innovative' Fish Projectsby Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 18, 2002
The Northwest Power Planning Council's "innovative" fish and wildlife project funding category is an apparent early victim of the Bonneville Power Administration's need to cut costs across the board to mute the effects of a self-described financial crisis.
In a letter dated, Oct. 2, BPA's Robert J. Austin informed the Council that only two of 10 recommended projects would be funded. Fiscal year 2002 funding for those two projects was conditioned on the ability to shape them to address actions called for in the National Marine Fisheries Service's 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion. The BiOp's "Reasonable and Prudent Action" measures describe steps that can be taken, both within the federal hydrosystem and offsite, to avoid jeopardizing the survival of 12 Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.
BPA's deputy fish and wildlife director, in his letter to the Council, said that, ". in response to the existing revenue shortfall, Bonneville is currently considering least cost alternatives in its funding decisions, and must balance these alternatives while meeting the objectives of the Council's Fish and Wildlife Program (Program) and fulfilling our legal obligations, under the Endangered Species Act, to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) 2000 Biological Opinion (BiOp).
"With this balance in mind, Bonneville has made a decision to fund only the two top-ranked of the innovative proposals recommended by the Council," Austin wrote. "We readily acknowledge the great amount of work that has gone into the 'innovative projects' proposal preparation and review processes by all parties.
"We feel this decision is the best we can make at this time considering the deterioration of our financial condition since the solicitation for these projects earlier this year."
The letter also suggests that the innovative project category be "deferred in fiscal year 2003 or until Bonneville's financial condition improves"
Bonneville said it would fund the following projects:
Austin's letter said the project would be implemented "provided the objectives of this project and the overall Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation program needs, outlined in the NMFS BiOp, can be aligned during the contracting process." In an earlier look at the project, before the Council recommendation, BPA had recommended that the project not be funded because of a potential overlap with ongoing work and work proposed under the Council's Mainstem/Systemwide Province funding category.
Funding for the project is also contingent on the ability to align its objectives with both Council and BiOp needs.
During the NWPPC's meeting this week in Spokane, its Fish and wildlife Division Director Doug Marker said that the letter was the first "policy declaration" that he had received from BPA that has said the federal power marketing agency would defer Council-recommended projects. But he said he has been increasingly hearing concerns from project proponents that projects not essential to BPA's ESA mission are being targeted.
"Clearly in the region the word is out that Bonneville is looking to defer projects," Marker told the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee Tuesday. He said the Council, project managers and BPA could focus on common goals for improved project cost management first, then look to deferrals if necessary.
He said news that the innovative projects, and program, had been deferred was "extremely discouraging to some of the leading researchers in the region." So was the Independent Scientific Review Panel, which had suggested the category as a means of developing new tools to aid in fish and wildlife recovery efforts.
Marker stressed that the Council has managed its Fish and Wildlife Program budget within the bounds outlined by BPA during the rate case that projected costs and revenues for the 2002-2006 rate period. Market forces, last year's drought and other factors -- not NWPPC program costs -- have forced a BPA forecast that it would have a deficit of more than $1.2 million over the next four years.
Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority Executive Director Rod Sando said his organization is working with the Council and BPA to improve project cost management. CBFWA is an organization of federal, state and tribal fish and wildlife managers.
"We're all engaged in this and we're all concerned," Sando said.
Marker said that the Council and BPA need to develop a more comprehensive approach to dealing with funding issues that have cropped up in recent months -- the innovative deferrals, in lieu and wildlife crediting issues and other policies that have taken the Council by surprise.
The Council in August recommended that 10 projects be funded under its "innovative" fish and wildlife project category during the current fiscal year at cost of nearly $2 million. The project proponents requested a total $1,960,710, within the $2 million earmarked in Council's program for the innovative category. Three projects would have been conducted throughout the Columbia River system, three in Idaho, two are in Washington, one is in Oregon and one is in the lower Columbia River of Oregon and Washington.
The Council makes its funding recommendations to BPA. The Council program is designed to mitigate the impacts of federal hydropower dams on fish and wildlife.
The Council for the fourth year in a row solicited innovative project proposals -- a funding category intended to attract projects that rely primarily on a method or technology that has not been used before in a fish and wildlife project in the Northwest, or that apply an established method or technology in a new way.
The innovative projects are funded within a program budget that is expected to average $150 million annually from 2002-2006. An additional $36 million is projected annually for capital expenses.
The 2002 solicitation, which drew 37 proposals requesting a total of $6.5 million, was dominated by research proposals.
The Council began soliciting and recommending innovative projects in 1998, in response to a recommendation of the ISRP, which annually reviews all projects proposed for funding through the Council's fish and wildlife program. In 2002, innovative projects were solicited in February, reviewed by the ISRP in May and made available for public comment in June. Both BPA and the NMFS offered comments.
The ISRP found that 17 of the 37 proposals met the solicitation criteria with five standing out above the rest. The two that BPA has said it will fund were among that top five.
The ISRP said that proposals ranked from 6 to 12 "offered potentially valuable contributions to the Fish and Wildlife program" and said proposals 13-17 "met the review criteria but did not demonstrate as strong a potential to provided significant benefits as the top 12." The ISRP did not rank the other 20 proposals.
The Council staff recommended that the ISRP's top 5 be funded, as well the scientists' 6-8 projects and nos. 13 and 16. The staff cited a variety of policy concerns in advising that projects ranked 9-12, 14, 15 and 17 not be funded.
The Council ultimately followed the advice of its staff, despite objections by BPA on five of the 10 projects.
The Council is an agency of the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington and is directed by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to prepare a program to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin affected by hydropower dams while also assuring the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.
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