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Commentaries and editorials

Legislation Would Free Rec Bureau
to do BiOp Habitat Work

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 11, 2003

A provision of the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion calls for the Bureau of Reclamation to begin implementing habitat projects, such as providing screens at irrigation diversions, but the agency must get congressional authorization before it can begin the work. That authorization could also bring with it additional money to address Northwest fish and wildlife issues.

So that it can complete the work required by the BiOp's Reasonable and Prudent Alternative 149, BOR would like to see legislation that would give it the authority to work on habitat projects in three subbasins per year over the course of five years on non-federal projects and lands, said the BOR's Pacific Northwest Region Director J. William McDonald. The agency proposed such legislation in an October 2002 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert with the intent of it taking effect in fiscal year 2004.

He said the BiOp determined that the Federal Columbia River Power System could not make enough changes at the hydroelectric projects to avoid jeopardy. For that reason federal agencies must also consider non-hydro measures, such as offsite habitat improvements at non-federal projects, to recover salmon stocks listed by the agency under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"The intended habitat work under RPA 149 will bring new money to Reclamation and the Northwest beyond the dollars we use for the current Fish and Wildlife program," McDonald told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council this week.

He added that the increase in the agency's budget for fish and wildlife activities from $5.5 million in 2001 to a proposed $19 million in 2004 is largely driven by the offsite mitigation work to put in screens and purchase additional water rights, but that the agency doesn't have the authority now to construct fish passage facilities, such as fish screens, at private sites.

The program would be completely voluntary and the legislation does not give BOR any regulatory authority, nor does it give it the right to condemn property, he said. Landowners or water rights owners do not need to participate in the cost-sharing program in which BOR would pay for 65 percent of a qualified project's cost. However, many of the landowners also face similar ESA issues as federal agencies are facing at dams.

"We think many private land owners would get an immense benefit from this program," McDonald said. "If they have a listed fish at their headgate, then they already have a take problem under the ESA's Sec. 9 take provision. We solve our problem and help the private landowner solve their problem. It makes sense to cost share."

However, the cost share must come from non-federal funds, except in the case of Native American funds, he said. Bonneville funds would not be allowed.

"It is not federal money, it is ratepayer money," argued Washington Council representative Tom Karier. "I think that should constitute a match."

"Bonneville dollars are critical to leveraging funding and this bill could have a precedent setting nature," said Doug Marker, Council staff. "That particular provision worries us."

"What happens if an owner doesn't want to cost share?" asked Melinda Eden, Oregon Council member.

"Then we can't proceed with that irrigator," McDonald answered. "The tributary habitat work will not get done without these volunteers and we will still be on the hook and that will show up in the 2005 and 2008 check-ins."

Related Sites:
Bureau of Reclamation, Pacific Northwest Division:
Northwest Power and Conservation Council:

Mike O'Bryant
Legislation Would Free Rec Bureau to do BiOp Habitat Work
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 11, 2003

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