With a fish and wildlife spending ramp up expected to continue in 2012 and beyond, the Bonneville Power Administration has said it must go slow in deciding whether to fund a $575,000 irrigation diversion improvement project in central Washington that is intended to benefit threatened Mid-Columbia River steelhead.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Wednesday recommended that the project be funded by BPA with funds from a $2 million, Fiscal Year 2012 earmark for work responding to requirements of NOAA Fisheries’ 2008 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion.
Bonneville, which owns the existing Gleed fish screen on the Naches River and pays for its operation and maintenance, has said it will defer judgment on whether to fund the renovation of the screen this coming summer, or push it off into fiscal year 2013, or split the cost between years. The Naches is a tributary to the Yakima River, which feeds into the Columbia River.
BPA, which markets power generated in the federal Columbia-Snake river hydro system (the FCRPS), funds fish and wildlife projects as mitigation for the impacts of the dams. It is also responsible for supporting the recovery of salmon and steelhead that have been affected by the hydro system. Thirteen Columbia basin salmon and steelhead stocks, including Mid-Columbia steelhead, are listed under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA Fisheries’ ESA BiOp outlines actions intended to improve the survival of fish that migrate up and down through the FCRPS.
Much of the fish and wildlife work funded by Bonneville is channeled through the NPCC’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, drawing review from the Council and its Independent Scientific Review Panel. The $575,000 “within-year” budget request from the Bureau of Reclamation and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife aims to make improvements to the Gleed fish screen, which is intended to keep fish out of irrigation diversions.
“The renovation associated with the Gleed fish screen was initiated to improve approach velocities at screens, improve maintenance crews’ ability to manage debris, and address bypass flow for fish and debris passage,” according to an Oct. 27 memo from the NPCC’s project implementation manager, Mark Fritsch.
“Currently, passage deficiencies exist with the majority of the spring smolt outmigration period. These deficiencies are caused by the inability of the current facility to handle the amount of debris during high-flow periods (i.e., spring run-off). During these high-flow periods fish passage criteria are not being met when velocities become too great and/or they get entrapped in the canals.”
BPA Fish and Wildlife Director Bill Maslen told the Council and its Fish and Wildlife Committee Tuesday and Wednesday that the project is a priority, but not necessarily the highest of priorities.
“The improvement is not required by the BiOp” specifically, Maslen said. Rather it is included in a more general BiOp “reasonable and prudent alternative” that calls for tributary habitat quality and fish survival improvements.
More “explicit” BiOp requirements, such as estuary habitat improvements, are looming and may command the budget.
Maslen said that in the past the NPCC and Bonneville have always managed to keep spending well within annual limits. But that ability is being challenged by increased requirements stemming from the BiOp. In 2011, expenditures totaled $221 million, just below the fiscal year’s $225 million budget.
“Our October spending is higher than we’ve ever seen,” Maslen said of the first month of the 2012 fiscal year. That reflects a “ramp up of both BiOp and Accord projects.”
A planned expansion of the budget to, primarily, answer BiOp needs and those of funding “accords” signed with states and tribes has been scaled back as a result of the most recent BPA “rate case,” Maslen said. That evaluation of costs, which is done to determine what wholesale rates the agency must charge for power, saw a $237 million fish and wildlife budget penciled in for FY 2012, as opposed to a prior estimate of $250 million, and a $241 million budget for 2013, down from a earlier projection of $254 million.
Washington Council member Phil Rockefeller noted that BPA has “a clear legal obligation to get this done” under the terms of a 1994 memorandum of agreement signed by Bonneville, the Bureau and WDFW.
“This has been a problem for years,” Rockefeller said of fish having to negotiate the debris in the clogged screen. “Is this the beginning of a Bonneville retrenchment” on its responsibility to pay for such projects?
Maslen stressed that it is a potential deferral of project implementation, not a backing off of Bonneville’s commitment. He said his agency needs more time before making a decision about whether to launch construction in 2012.
“BPA supports the proposal but defers of implementing the change request at this time,” according to an Oct. 24 letter from Maslen to the Council. “The facility has operated under such conditions since inception in 1993, and generally provides reasonable conditions except under high flow events. While continuing to operate in this manner is not preferred, and we want to support the improvements when funds are available, we are not prepared at this time to make the funding commitment given other higher priorities for available funds.
“Although BPA and the Council have supported previous change requests leading to the current one, we simply find the current financial situation too constrained to fund the final phases of Gleed, including construction, at this time,” Maslen wrote. “The Gleed within-year request represents one of those difficult project funding decisions BPA must make to ensure funds are available for the highest priority actions, and that we manage spending within the available budget.”
The Bureau made the request to complete environmental compliance, design and construction of the Gleed Fish Screen. The final design is near complete for changes that will address deficiencies that have caused the screen to operate out of NMFS criteria for the majority of the spring smolt outmigration period since the screen was installed in 1993, according to Maslen’s memo. The re-design was developed by BOR and has been reviewed and approved by stakeholders including WDFW, NOAA, Yakama Nation and irrigation districts associated with the Gleed Canal.