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Commentaries and editorials

Council Recommends $31 Million
for Mainstem Projects

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 13, 2003

A funding recommendation made Wednesday by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council succeeds in balancing its fish and wildlife program budgets for the next three fiscal years but leaves numerous proposals on the outside, including some desired by the program's funding source, the Bonneville Power Administration.

The Council recommended that 35 research-related projects asking for $31 million annually be funded in the fish and wildlife program's "mainstem/systemwide" category as expense. The Council also asked that three other mainstem/systemwide projects be funded as "capital" projects with their total budget ranging from $3 million to $3.7 million annually during the fiscal 2004-2006 period.

Left off the "tier 1" list are four projects BPA said are critical to meeting its Endangered Species Act responsibilities. The Council also recommends lesser funding for four other projects that Bonneville has said it needs to have implemented to meet critical Endangered Species Act needs. Ten-year federal biological opinions issued in 2000 say that planned operations of the Columbia/Snake federal hydrosystem jeopardized the survival of eight salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the ESA. The NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents also outline measures both within the system and off-site that could be taken to avoid that jeopardy.

A large majority of the projects recommended by the Council address BiOp needs, but there is not enough money to go around. Montana Council member John Hines said the final mainstem/systemwide budget proposal is an attempt address ESA needs while still trying to fulfill the mandates of the Northwest Power Act, which charges the Council with protecting and enhancing all fish and wildlife species.

Under consideration Wednesday during the Council's meeting in Boise was a pared down list of project funding requests totaling more than $60 million. The funding candidates were solicited and screened through the Council's provincial review process. The project proposals were judged by federal, state and tribal fish and wildlife managers (the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority), the Council's Independent Scientific Review Panel, and BPA and NOAA Fisheries. NOAA leads ESA recovery efforts for salmon and steelhead.

Spending is limited by a BPA edict that says no more than $139 million will be available annually for 11 Columbia Basin geographical "provinces," and the mainstem/systemwide category. The Council and staff devised an apportionment scheme that first subtracts $28 million in placeholders ($10 million for subbasin planning, $900,000 for scientific reviews, $5 million for a BiOp water marketing experiment and $12 million for BPA overhead). The balance, $111.1 million, was split up between the mainstem/systemwide category and 11 geographical provinces based on historical spending. The mainstem/systemwide has historically gotten a 27.9 percent share, hence the $31 million allocation.

BPA provides funds from ratepayer revenues as mitigation for the impact to fish and wildlife from the construction and operation of the federal hydrosystem.

"The decision on this package of projects was very difficult for us, but we did the best we could with the budget we were given," Council Chair Judi Danielson said. "For each project, we asked whether the work is a Bonneville ratepayer responsibility or could be funded by others. Given the current financial crisis at Bonneville, we recommended a package of projects that will produce biological benefits and improve scientific knowledge at the lowest possible cost."

For 2003, Bonneville limited direct expenditures for the program to $139 million as a part of its effort to cut costs and reduce the need to increase the rates it charges wholesale power customers. The Council and staff spent much of this past winter scaling back planned 2003 spending by about $40 million to meet that goal.

The Council will now forward its mainstem/systemwide recommendation to the federal power marketing agency. BPA will answer with a decision letter.

"We need to consider our options," said Therese Lamb, BPA's acting vice president for Environment. "It's a complex decision to respond to."

She had argued, during a Tuesday NPCC Fish and Wildlife Committee meeting, for consideration of several projects not included on a Council staff-produced "tier 1" project list recommended for funding.

"Implementation of biological opinion actions are very important to us," Lamb told the committee. That is despite the fact that a federal judge has declared the BiOp "arbitrary and capricious" and ordered it reworked. The court is considering the plaintiffs' request to have the BiOp vacated during the remand, but NOAA fisheries and federal federal action agencies, which include BPA, say they would like to keep the recovery plan in place. Lamb told the committee that the federal agencies have not developed a plan of action should the BiOp be vacated.

Lamb acknowledged the Council and BPA were "getting to the really hard part" of the process necessary to integrate ESA and fish and wildlife programs. But she stressed that Bonneville wants to "make sure we can fund the biological opinion with the $139 million."

The BPA proposal put about $30 million worth of projects in what it described as "Phase 1" -- those it felt should be approve for 2004-2006 funding as part of the Council's mainstem/systemwide decision. Criteria provided by BPA said those projects "constitute a significant or primary response to requirements of the 3- and 5-year check-in," received a 'fundable' rating from the ISRP and are 'core' for NPCC program implementation. Certain projects were designated by CBFWA as core to the program.

BPA additionally advised that it wanted a second set of projects, phase 2, funded in the near future from savings achieved from efficiencies to be found in ongoing projects both within mainstem/systemwide category and across the basin's provinces. Seven of the projects are recommended by the Council for funding but eight others did not. The Council staff estimated that implementing BPA's phase 2 would require cost savings from existing projects of $12.5 million in 2004. Lamb said Thursday that BPA's latest estimates pegged that phase 2 differential at $9.4 million.

Of that total about $3.4 million is for three NOAA research, monitoring and evaluation projects that the ISRP said were not scientifically supportable. The proposals are being reworked in an attempt to satisfy the ISRP's concerns, a process the Council staff said "raises serious fairness concerns." The projects have already failed to win the science panel's blessing after the regular "provincial" review and fix-it loop and an extra ISRP review after previous modifications. Except for the BiOp "critical" projects, none of the other provincial or mainstem/system proposals were afforded those extra chances to earn ISRP favor.

"The total we would be looking for in the near term is about $6 million," Lamb said.

Council members in committee and during Wednesday's session were distressed about BPA's perceived need to find funding for the Phase 2 projects from elsewhere in the program.

"I don't know how to sell that. The eight of us scrubbed those provinces pretty darn hard," Washington member Larry Cassidy said of the prospect of the prospect of paring back project budgets further. He referred to the adjustments and project deferrals made during the winter to get under the $139 million spending cap for fiscal 2003.

"It's not only selling, but should we sell it," Montana's Ed Bartlett asked rhetorically.

"I'm not convinced that there is $12 million in efficiencies in the provinces," Cassidy said. Bringing BPA's Phase 2 projects into the plan could force out ongoing projects, he said. A NPCC staff memo pointed out that the BPA plan would give those phase 2 projects priority over other qualified projects within the mainstem/systemwide category and across the provinces.

Bonneville is required by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to consider the Council's recommendations.

A complete list of the recommended projects will be posted on the Council's website,

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.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Council Recommends $31 Million for Mainstem Projects
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 23, 2003

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