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Basin Fish, Wildlife Managers Testify on Program Cuts

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 31, 2003

Tribal officials and other Columbia River basin fish and wildlife officials on Monday again stated the case that their programs are already under-funded and are inappropriately being targeted for budget cuts as a remedy for the Bonneville Power Administration's financial missteps.

The fish and wildlife managers testified Monday during a special Northwest Power and Conservation Council meeting held to grapple with financial issues. BPA, which funds the Council's fish and wildlife program, originally estimated nearly $180 million would be spent during fiscal 2003 -- well over a $139 million cap the agency has established. The Council and region's fish and wildlife managers -- who implement a majority of the program -- now think that 2003 "accrual" number is about $168 million -- still $29 million above the cap.

BPA Administrator Steve Wright has asked the Council to produce by Feb. 21 a list of projects and accrual or spending estimates that come in at or below the $139 million spending cap. That could require the termination or deferral of existing fish and wildlife projects. The agency's cash reserves are at a low ebb and it is projected BPA could sustain more than $1 billion in losses over the balance the rate period. So it is trying to reduce costs.

Donald Sampson and John Palensky were among several attending the meeting that urged Bonneville to make more liberal use of its borrowing authority to fund fish and wildlife project. By "capitalizing" more projects such as land acquisitions and paying the purchases off over time, the $168 million could by reduced by about $20 million, managers says.

Palensky, of NOAA Fisheries and this year's chair of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, pointed out that only $6 million worth of fish and wildlife projects had been capitalized, and about $15 million is projected this year. That is well below the yearly average of $36 million in capital expenditure that BPA assumed when calculating its costs for the 2002-2006 wholesale power rate period.

Sampson, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission executive director, said that BPA needed to take a closer look at its other programs before gouging the fish and wildlife budget.

"We've been meeting our costs" while nearly every other BPA program has overshot rate case spending assumptions yet few are being asked to cut as deeply as the NPCC program, Sampson said.

"I don't think that's equitable treatment," which is required by the Northwest Power Act, Sampson said.

Joseph A Pakootas said the Colville Tribes are among those to have suffered the worst in terms of natural resource, economic and cultural impacts resulting from construction of the hydrosystem. And that damage has gone largely unmitigated, said the chairman of the Colville Business Council, governing body of the Colville Tribes.

Pakootas said the tribes have worked hard to devise creative fish and wildlife solutions, and stretch limited resources as far as possible.

"The current lack of stability in program funding, however, is undermining the confidence of our members, the stakeholders with whom we have developed hard-won collaborative relationships, and the very integrity of our protection, mitigation, enhancement and recovery projects," Pakootas told the Council.

Like other tribal spokesmen Monday, Pakootas said BPA's desire to satisfy its obligations under the Endangered Species Act is undercutting responsibilities written into the Northwest Power Act. As a federal "action" agency that markets power from the federal hydrosystem, BPA is obliged to take actions described in December 2000 "biological opinions" that reduce the jeopardy posed by the hydrosystem to salmon, steelhead and resident fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Power Act calls on BPA to mitigate for impacts of the hydrosystem on fish and wildlife, listed or not.

He and other fish and wildlife managers stressed that the time allotted by Bonneville to pare back spending in 2003 was not enough to do a proper job.

"In general terms, we propose that after, and only after, the full and precise nature of Bonneville's financial situation has been confirmed, the Council work in concert with the region's fish and wildlife mangers to activate a process that allows for genuine and meaningful input...," Pakootas said.

The Colville Tribes' fish and wildlife program manager, Joe Peone, said that BPA was forcing the Council and fish and wildlife managers to move ahead without adequate data to make sound decisions. The forced process "undermines the stability and rationale of the Council's 2000 Fish and Wildlife Program," he said.

Peone said that the "Fish and Wildlife program, which was under budget and running well prior to implementation of the current crisis/chaos management, is being targeted to pay for substantial BPA budget overruns and fiscal mismanagement that have nothing to do with the Fish and Wildlife Program."

"Bonneville is not honoring its commitment to the tribes," said Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation Fish and Wildlife Committee. He said the federal agency had in a 1996-2001 memorandum of agreement outlined funding levels. That MOA said that funds remaining in those accounts at the end of fiscal year 2001 "will not be re-programmed for any non-fish and wildlife use, but will remain available for expenditure for the benefit of fish and wildlife."

Lewis said Bonneville underspent by $227 million during that MOA period but has not made the money for fish and wildlife.

"This is an illegal use of the funds," Lewis said of the fact that funds were not reserved. Mounting accruals in 2002 and 2003 stem in part from commitments made during the MOA.

He cited several other instances in which the tribes believed BPA had failed to follow through on its fish and wildlife commitments.

"After all of these commitments and assurances, Bonneville is now considering reducing this future fish and wildlife funding to improve its finances and avoid a rate increase of approximately seven percent," Lewis said. "This would shift the risk of Bonneville's mistakes to fish and wildlife and the tribal cultures that depend on them." He said that would harm the resource and the tribal economy. The Yakama Nation has 148 full-time employees, of which BPA funds 108.

Lewis said that BPA's emphasis on satisfying biological opinion requirements is bringing the deferral of fish and wildlife program obligations for unlisted resident fish, wildlife and salmon and steelhead.

"This will only result in more listing as the species that are being ignored continue to decline," Lewis said.

Related Pages:

Barry Espenson
Basin Fish, Wildlife Managers Testify on Program Cuts
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 31, 2003

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