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Council Ponders Subbasin Plan
'Response Loop' Process

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - February 20, 2004

Northwest Power and Conservation Council members this week pondered the adequacy of a newly developed "response" process to address policy and science issues unearthed during technical and public review of subbasin plans soon to be delivered from across the Columbia River basin.

That envisioned process would extend the contracts of statewide subbasin planning coordinators and create new contracts for "key people" to help the Council and staff review and resolve critical issues. Most subbasin planning contracts now in place expire at the end of May.

Only one subbasin plan has been delivered thus far as a recommended amendment to the Council's fish and wildlife program -- for Idaho's Clearwater River. Nearly 60 more are expected before a May 28 submittal deadline. The Council in launching the process said it intended that final plans -- outlining strategies buoying fish and wildlife -- would help set priorities for project funding.

The Council's Independent Scientific Review Panel in its review released Feb. 6 called the Clearwater plan a "major new step" in the Council process. But the scientific panel was largely critical of the plan submitted by the locally-based Clearwater Policy Advisory Committee in November. The ISRP report said the Clearwater plan failed to make the direct connection between fish and wildlife status and habitat conditions and priority needs.

The draft plan "does not clearly set forth and scientifically justify the desired direction for the subbasin…," the ISRP wrote. The Clearwater plan remains open for public comment until March 20. Meanwhile regional, state and local planners are mulling the implications of that initial scientific review on a process that will fully flower after May 28 when the ISRP and public begins scrutinizing nearly five dozen plans.

The Council and its staff will have one year to act on the plans or amendment recommendations. The schedule now calls for draft amendments to be molded by about Oct. 15 with adoption of final plans targeted for the Council's December and/or January meetings.

Idaho Councilor Jim Kempton, during Wednesday's Council meeting in Boise, said that if the same standards applied to the Clearwater plan are applied elsewhere, "every subbasin is going to be found wanting." He said that the initial review demanded that the plans list and prioritize work "to the individual project level," effectively making decisions instead of posing options.

"How do we handle policy issues vs. science," Kempton said, of potential responses to ISRP comments in creating the Council's draft and final plans. Washington Councilor Larry Cassidy also wondered whether the watershed groups had technical, and financial, wherewithal to provide the level of detail that the ISRP seems to be requiring.

"We'll be 10 years getting this done if they all come out like this," Cassidy said. The ISRP was created in response to an amendment to the Northwest Power Act to provide the Council with independent scientific review of projects funded by the Bonneville Power Administration.

The entire Columbia Basin subbasin process, which was launched in 2000, was budgeted at $15.2 million. As of this week, $13.9 million was committed with an unallocated balance of $1.35 million, according Lynn Palensky, NPCC subbasin planning coordinator.

"We probably will come in under budget," Palensky said. She said that majority of the plans are "moving into the management plan development stage" now that most of the assessment work is completed.

The NPCC's official request for recommendations in August of 2002 requires that the plans include:

She said she could count just a handful of subbasins that were lagging behind schedule in their plan development.

Discussions are ongoing with Bonneville Power Administration, which funds the program, about using any leftover money after May 28 for any contracting that is necessary during the "response" period suggested by staff and state level planners.

Kempton said that, given the extensiveness of the ISRP comments alone, the subbasin funding balance would not be enough.

Washington's other Council member, Tom Karier, said he did not expect the same degree of criticism to be leveled at each and every plan. He said Washington planners, Council members and staff are reviewing the Clearwater plan and ISRP comments with the intention of avoiding some of the pratfalls encountered by the pioneering Idaho effort.

NPCC senior counsel John Ogan told the Council that the new schedule worked out by the statewide coordinators and staff with the submittals of amendment recommendations (subbasin plans) on or before May 28. Only two, the Kootenai and Flathead, are expected early. Planning entities there are targeting a late March "pre-formal submission." That will also allow preliminary reviews by the ISRP, and the time to correct a plan's course if that is deemed necessary.

Under the new schedule, the public comment period would run concurrent with the ISRP's review of the submitted plans, from early June through Aug. 12.

The next four to seven working days would be used by staff and planners for "issue identification" within the public comments and ISRP reviews -- a quick scan to ferret out critical technical or legal issues that would likely affect the "adoptability" of the plan, Ogan said. The Council created the fish and wildlife program at the direction of 1980's Northwest Power Act and amendments must conform to provisions of that law.

The period between Aug. 12 and the Council's November meeting will be used to consult with planners to address those critical issues and craft draft amendments. That process has historically been "a role the Council exclusively works on," Ogan told the NPCC's Fish and Wildlife Committee Tuesday. The current process, however, will rely on "uncommon collaboration" with those that developed the plans.

The response loop proposal submitted by state coordinators points out that "subbasin plans are not being developed in four subbasins, either because there are no Council-program projects in them or because watershed planning is underway through other processes,” according to a memo from Ogan and Palensky to the Council.

The memo also says "We recommend that the May 28 deadline remain firm. All parts of all plans are due on that date, with no exceptions. We expect that the ISRP, states and other public commenters would advise the Council on the significance of the missing plan pieces or elements. This advice would have to be taken into account by the Council as it determines if the standards in the Act and Program have been met that would allow the proposed plan to be adopted.

"Further, because subbasin plans are intended to direct project funding in the future, missing or incomplete plans would likely affect future funding decisions within those subbasins. Any additional plan information or parts submitted after May 28 would be accepted, but those would be considered only public comments on the fish and wildlife program amendment process," the memo says. "As such, they have a different legal status than amendment 'recommendations.' "

"We also recognize there may be contract performance issues regarding incomplete or unsubmitted plans. We recommend that the state coordinators negotiate payment issues on a case-by-case basis with the contractors and that the Council staff be consulted in these cases."

Barry Espenson
Council Ponders Subbasin Plan 'Response Loop' Process
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 20, 2004

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