BPA tries to hold the line on wildlife spending


PORTLAND, Ore. — The Bonneville Power Administration is proposing to hold down spending on wildlife programs, even as it faces court requirements to show progress in fish restoration.

The agency says it’s a blip in programs where spending is rising rapidly, and the belt-tightening won’t affect its commitments under court orders to preserve and restore populations of threatened fish.

The agency’s customers are worried about the rising spending, and low natural gas prices threaten to undercut the revenue BPA uses to reduce rates to the 140 public utilities that buy power directly from the agency, TheOregonian reported Friday.

At a meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council this week in Astoria, BPA executives said they have already added $13 million to the wildlife budget for the coming year.

But the agency said it is looking to trim spending by deferring land and equipment purchases, paring programs that aren’t specifically related to the impact of federal dams on salmon and steelhead, and suspending operations and maintenance that aren’t critical.

The agency has asked six of its largest partners, including Oregon and Washington and the Nez Perce Tribe, to cut their budgets by 10 to 15 percent.

A BPA official called it “growing pains in a growing program” that will still see outlays increase from $246 million this year to $260 million by 2015.

“This is belt-tightening, not a fundamental change in what we’re going to get done on the ground,” said Lorraine Bodi, BPA’s vice president for environment, fish and wildlife. “We’re suggesting areas where potential cuts could occur. This is a collaborative effort to make sure we live within our budget, not something we’re imposing on people.”

Under court orders and negotiated agreements, the BPA underwrites a large fish and habitat restoration effort. Counting foregone power generation to improve fish conditions, depreciation and interest on fish ladders and other expenses, BPA spends some $700 million a year to alleviate the dams’ impact on fish and wildlife.

That includes $250 million a year in direct spending on some 500 projects being carried out by state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and tribes. They are geared to meet goals set out in a federal court order as well as 10-year agreements known as the Columbia Basin Fish Accords signed in 2008. They range from hatchery operations and watershed restoration to fish tagging, and they stretch from the Pacific Ocean deep into Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Customers say some of the agency’s spending has become institutionalized, and it should focus on projects to meet court requirements.

“We’re really concerned about the longer-term trajectory,” said Terry Flores, executive director Northwest RiverPartners, which represents public utilities, ports and farming organizations. “We have all this expense coming on board, but we don’t see things coming off the table to make room.”

Critics said rushing into cuts could hurt programs they have spent years building.

“BPA lost track of all the moving pieces going on,” said Tom Iverson, program director of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“This should not have been a big surprise”

He said the problem is that most of these projects are employee-driven.

“When you cut people with expertise, two years later when you try to ramp things back up, those people are no longer available,” Iverson said.