Hoping to avoid “opening a can of worms,” the Northwest Power and Conservation Council declined support for a request from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for $150,780 in expense funds to purchase a 143.6 acre easement in Joseph Creek, a tributary to the Grande Ronde River in northeast Oregon.
The “within-year” funding request is intended to supplement a $387,000 2012 budget for the Blue Mountain Fish Habitat Improvement project, which received funding for the fiscal year through the Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. The project’s overall purpose is to protect, restore and enhance stream and riparian habitats in the Grande Ronde and Imnaha river subbasins.
The easement in question, for an exclusion fence in Joseph Creek to keep livestock out of the riparian zoned, expired in 2005. And the new owner “has expressed interest in receiving an annual payment similar to CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program),” according to an NPCC staff memo.
The trouble is, according to NPCC project implementation manager Mark Fritsch, is there “are nearly 60 of these” expiring or expired easement agreements in that Blue Mountain zone alone, and more in other Oregon basins.
The Bonneville Power Administration, which funds the Council program, also said funding decisions on such requests should be delayed.
“BPA recommends ODFW to frame and prioritize this approach for all their habitat projects within the upcoming geographical categorical review,” according to a memo from BPA’s Fish and Wildlife Director Bill Maslen. “A programmatic approach should be considered rather than a project-by-project proposal.”
The Council plans in the near future to launch a region-by-region review of habitat projects funded through the program.
ODFW generally enters into a 10 to 15 year agreement with participating landowners to maintain projects after installation.
“ODFW would like to pursue the use of payment for annual compliance set forth in the landowner’s responsibilities under the easement (i.e., no trespass cattle, no land development, etc.), and provide an incentive to the landowner to continue to participate in the riparian protection,” the July 26 memo says.
“The ODFW has proposed a payment of $70.00 an acre per year with a total payment of $10,052 annually for the 143.6 acres. This would equal $150,780 for the minimum life of the riparian agreement (15yrs).
The staff recommended that, though this request has merit for continuing riparian protection, it also has severe implications for the majority of the habitat projects implemented by ODFW. The proposed option to pay for the conservation easement in Joseph Creek could have implications for a multitude of arrangements ODFW has with other property owners, not only in the Grande Ronde, but also in the John Day, Umatilla, Deschutes and Fifteenmile subbasins.
“If this type of arrangement is needed to continue to secure and protect riparian zones then implementation approaches and criteria will need to be defined and reviewed so that the priority reaches are addressed,” the NPCC memo says.
The only within-year funding request recommended for funding Tuesday by the Council was made despite reservations expressed by Bonneville. BPA funds fish and wildlife projects as mitigation for negative impacts resulting from the construction and operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System in the Columbia and Snake basins. BPA markets energy produced in the FCRPS hydro system. Bonneville makes final decisions on project funding requests.
The project recommended for funding by the Council involved a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife request for $36,556 in additional expense funds to repaint the lift gantry at the New Cascade fish screen facility in the Yakima River in central Washington. The New Cascade Canal diversion structure, built in 1994, is located on the left bank of the Yakima River about 2 1/2 miles downstream of Thorp. The screen is part of the existing comprehensive operation and maintenance program of irrigation diversions by the Bureau of Reclamation of BPA-owned Yakima Phase II fish screening facilities in the Yakima River subbasin.
The New Cascade screen facility has proved to be a success, keeping from 90 to 99 percent of migrating salmon and steelhead out of the irrigation canal, according to the WDFW’s Dan Rawding.
The crane cleaning and painting request, which would come on top of 2012’s $180,000 operations and maintenance budget for the facility, is necessary to protect the investment in the screen lifting gantry, he said.
The crane “is definitely rusted out and 10 years past the need for repainting,” Rawding said. Operators fear a failure if the needed maintenance is not carried out.
Maslen, in his letter to the Council regarding the within-year budget increase requests, said “BPA supports the work, and recommends the sponsor to work with their BPA Project Manager/COTR to reprioritize work within their existing contract for O&M on screens.”
He said his agency could not expand its budget to accommodate what could be a long list of above budget requests like the one for easement funding and for non-normal O&M expense like the crane.
“It’s not about the merit,” Maslen said, but rather about developing a programmatic approach for addressing such issues that helps prioritize the spending of a limited pot of money.
“It’s about managing our spending,” he said.