Pacific Northwest irrigators are asking the region’s governors to put a cap on the amount of money devoted to salmon recovery.
The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association recently called for the governors of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington to request a meeting of the Endangered Species Act committee, which consists of cabinet-level or governor-appointed representatives who could make a decision about the level of species recovery considered adequate.
“What we’re asking for is a definite endpoint in the expenditures made by Bonneville Power Administration and ratepayer expenditures on the biological opinion for the hydropower system,” said irrigators association board representative Darryll Olsen.
Seattle environmental law organization Earthjustice announced in March its intention to sue the Bonneville Power Administration over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act. Earthjustice cited the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2014 supplemental biological opinion, issued in January, arguing that the opinion ignores data that productivity for some listed fish stocks is flat or continues to decline, fails to consider impacts of climate change and fails to account for increased mortality by cormorant predation.
“NOAA has made all of those mistakes, and Bonneville has unquestioningly adopted them,” said Steve Mashuda, staff attorney for Earthjustice.
But NOAA’s biological opinion “confirms we are on the right track when it comes to ensuring the survival of salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia River system now and well into the future,” Bonneville Power Administration spokesman Doug Johnson said in a statement to the Capital Press.
BPA spends roughly $900 million a year in its fish and wildlife budget, Olsen said. One-third of the company’s wholesale power rate goes to the fish and wildlife program, he said. Irrigators expect another power rate increase in October.
“We don’t want to absorb any more of this, when we don’t think it’s providing any additional benefit to fish,” he said. “We think many of the key species are in or headed toward recovery, and now we’re just spending money for the sake of spending money.”
The Columbia River is home to roughly 60 species of fish, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Olsen believes the biological opinion is seen by activists as never adequate because of a perception that there’s an endless supply of money that can be transferred from federal agencies, BPA or ratepayers to state fish and wildlife agencies and tribes.
Olsen says there’s adequate proof of the success of the BPA program for fish passage and survival.
“Throwing additional money at the problem is not going to create more fish, it’s just going to put more money in the salmon recovery industry,” Olsen said.
“They’re of the mind that everything that can be done to help fish has been done, and we can’t do anymore, and they don’t want to do anymore,” Mashuda said. “It’s an attention-grabbing move or a political stunt to raise those arguments, rather than any valid or statutorially based reason for doing so.”
Olsen hopes the committee will cap the level of expenditures annually. He hopes to hear from the governors in the four states within 30 days. A governor must make the request to the U.S. Secretary or Commerce or the Secretary of the Interior to call the committee.
Olsen said the Northwest governors should decide whether to devote more funding to salmon recovery, not a federal judge, every time a new biological opinion is released.
“We are just on a litigation treadmill that has no end,” he said.