Federal, state and tribal officials are negotiating an extension of the Columbia Basin fish accords, but some entities are urging Idaho Gov. Brad Little to not sign anything that could undercut his Salmon Workgroup.
The diverse group of stakeholders is entering the home stretch of its more than one year of meetings, brainstorming and collaboration aimed at delivering a set of salmon recovery policy recommendations to the governor.
The accords, first signed in 2008, are agreements among individual states and tribes and the so-called action agencies — the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration. In part, the states and tribes agreed to publicly support the federal government’s plans to blend dam operation with the needs of the fish, and to settle any differences out of court. In exchange, the states and tribes received billions of dollars of funding for salmon recovery projects.
The Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon opted not to sign the accords, but were still able to access federal salmon recovery funding mandated by the Northwest Power Act and crucial to the federal government being able to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
The accords were extended in 2018, but are set to expire next month when the federal government issues its final plan, known as a record of decision, to operate Snake and Columbia river dams in a way that doesn’t put the fish at further risk of extinction. Little’s Salmon Workgroup is scheduled to deliver a set of policy recommendations in about four months that are expected to aim considerably higher — at actions that could lead to recovery of Idaho’s wild anadromous fish runs to healthy and harvestable numbers.
Some in the group worry extending the accords could make it more difficult for the governor to push for some of the eventual recommendations. Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, said at the work group’s virtual meeting Thursday that he doesn’t want the state to sign a “bad accord” that might forbid Idaho from advocating for more aggressive fish recovery measures.
For example, he said the group could recommend that the federal government spill more water than is called for in the preferred alternative of its recent Columbia River Systems Operation environmental impact statement. That is the document expected to be finalized late next month.
“A bad accord is one that binds the hands of the state and limits its sovereignty,” Hayes said.
He likened language that prevents accord parties from criticizing the federal government’s fish and dams plan to a gag order.
Federal officials objected to that language. Tim Dykstra, senior fish program manager for the Army Corps at Portland, said the accords help foster smooth communication and decision making.
“It’s primarily about relationships and using those relationships to accomplish important work for fish out on the ground,” he said. “The accords really helped establish relationships that were the fertile ground that allowed a lot of good work to happen for the last decade-plus.”
Dykstra also said the accords led to talks that ultimately produced the flexible spill agreement, that allows water to be spilled at Snake and Columbia river dams for about 18 hours a day but allows BPA and the Corps to divert water through hydroelectric turbines when prices for power are higher. That agreement is carried forward in the government’s soon-to-be completed salmon and dams plan.
Hayes noted, however, that the flexible spill agreement was born out of litigation and negotiated by Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe.
“It seems to me like people who don’t have accords were in a better position to push you frankly,” he said. “It strikes me that not having an accord is better for fish than not having an accord.”
Joseph Oatman, deputy program manager and harvest manager for the tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management, said tribes, states and the federal government can work together even without the accords.
“I would challenge the notion that accords are prerequisite for having a relationship and working together,” he said.
But Daniel Stone, a policy analyst for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, said the accords and their guaranteed multi-year funding have allowed the tribes’ fisheries program to undertake bigger, longer-term projects while retaining flexibility that would not be available under other funding mechanisms. For example, he said the Sho-Ban tribes are completing a restoration of the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River that has heavily altered by dredge mining in the early 1900s.
“The fish accords have provided that vehicle for us to work collaboratively as salmon managers and craft solutions on a larger scale,” he said.
He noted that during the development of the government’s latest salmon and dams plan, the tribes were able to make their opinions known.
Mike Edmondson, acting director of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, said the extension being negotiated would cover just two years and it would serve as a bridge to a longer-term agreement in which policy recommendations coming out of Little’s Salmon Workgroup could be considered.
He noted it will be at least four months before the group produces its recommendations, at which point the extension would already be 18 months from expiring.
“It would take at least that long to work out how (any recommendations Little adopts) would be implemented on the ground. It makes sense to continue and let this process play out in four months.”
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