In 2004 a settlement agreement signed by PacifiCorp and several tribal, state, and federal government agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) required the installation of fish passage as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) process of relicencing the three hydro-electric dams along the Lewis River in southwest Washington.
However, PacifiCorp, which operates the dams, and its partner, the Cowlitz Public Utility District (PUD), are attempting to use a clause in that license to avoid installing fish passage.
The clause mandated that if new information was provided that showed that fish passage is not found to be appropriate by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS), then PacifiCorp can set up an “in-leu” fund to restore habitat within the watershed. The company would then pocket millions of dollars that it would otherwise have spent on fish passage.
Estimates as to how much would be spent on constructing fish passage ranges from $200 million, which PacifiCorp maintains is enough, up to $400 million, which many proponents of fish passage say is required to do the work properly.
PacifiCorp did provide new information in the form of a report, which the services considered, even though it was found to have multiple issues.
For example, the justification relies on fish abundance estimates produced by a revised PacifiCorp and NMFS Ecosystem Diagnostic Treatment (EDT) analysis, although the use of EDT for abundance estimates and management decisions is cautioned against, even in the report wording itself.
However, after extensive lobbying to the tune of over $2 million dollars according to public records, and pressure from the company in Washington, D.C., both NMFS and the USFWS began to back away from requiring passage.
They issued a preliminary decision — not a final determination — that showed they were leaning toward giving PacifiCorp the option of the in-leu habitat restoration.
That did not sit well with the Cowlitz Tribe, the NGO’s involved, and the WDFW.
These partners have pushed back, saying that the services were allowing PacifiCorp to opt out of passage. The partners feel that the company is reneging on what it agreed to during relicencing negotiations.
“A lot of folks took a look at the new information provided by PacifiCorp,” said Eli Asher, the Interim Deputy Director of the Natural Resources Department of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. “The bulk of them believed that fish passage still remained appropriate.”
Kessina Lee, the Regional Director of WDFW’s Region 5, agrees with Asher.
“We are one of the parties to challenge the preliminary determination by the NMFS and USFWS that would have allowed PacifiCorp to forgo passage,” Lee said. “Our analysis showed that they would not be able to get near the salmon and steelhead recovery with habitat restoration that they would be able to get with fish passage.”
The species that would benefit from passage include spring Chinook, steelhead, and coho. All were present in the upper watershed before Merwin Dam was built in 1931, blocking all fish access upriver.
In recent years adults of these species have been trapped at Merwin Dam and released in the upper watershed to spawn. However, a juvenile collector at Swift Reservoir is not reaching the settlement goals set for downstream passage.
The partners in the effort to install fish passage includes the WDFW, Cowlitz tribe, Yakima Nation, Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, Native Fish Society, Trout Unlimited, and American Rivers.
About a month ago the services indicated they were once again leaning toward requiring fish passage, but the final determination has yet to be made.
In the meantime, PacifiCorp has requested a hearing on the matter.
The company also continues to ask for, and receive, delays, and if the services were to opt for the in-leu option and habitat work, it would allow PacifiCorp 10 years to show improvements in the fish populations before the matter is revisited. These possible delays aggravate the tribes and their partners.
“I don’t think you would find anyone in the region that would say the situation for salmon is getting less critical,” Lee said. “The longer this is delayed, the greater the threat of extinction.”
For the tribes the matter is more than the opportunity to harvest more salmon and steelhead. Cowlitz Indian Tribe Chairman David Barnett recently issued the following statement:
“For the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, salmon are tightly woven into our heritage and identity. As the Forever People, we have long dedicated ourselves to nurturing the rivers and streams that salmon travel throughout their life cycles, helping to preserve an iconic species not only for our community but for all. We look forward to engaging with others to ensure that the important work of full fish passage along the Lewis River comes to fruition.”
When asked for a statement, PacifiCorp provided the following that reads, in part:
“The Lewis River Settlement Agreement expressly contemplates that the Utilities’ “new information,” which is based on sound science conducted by third parties, may influence the implementation of additional fish passage facilities. While the utilities do not oppose a potential compromise that would allow for fish passage facilities in Yale and Merwin Reservoirs, additional facilities need to be appropriately designed in view of their costs and benefits, as indicated by the underlying scientific record developed by the parties.
“The Utilities remain open to collaborative discussions to resolve these matters.”
Meanwhile, frustration is mounting among the pro-passage partners.
“Every time PacifiCorp attempts to delay, we are failing to provide habitat, and failing to provide (access) for fish throughout the Lewis River basin,” Asher said. “It’s the worst of both worlds right now, because not only do we not have fish passage, there’s no mitigation during that delay. We are staring down another five-year delay.”
Terry Otto offers a weekly southwest Washington fishing report and forecast online in “The Guide Forecast” at www.theguidesforecast.com