Bureau receives cautious welcome into area subbasin

Alex Conley

JOHN DAY - In agricultural circles, mentioning the Bureau of Reclamation's name may elicit a storm of resentment over the agency's controversial shutoff of irrigation water to farmers in the Klamath Basin.

Now, as the Bureau enters its third year of launching a lower-profile fish-habitat improvement program in the John Day River Basin, feelings are mixed.

Mark Croghan, the Bureau's subbasin liaison, emphasized partnerships when discussing the agency's intentions.

"We want to work with existing programs," he said.

For agricultural producers wary of the agency's role in the Klamath Basin conflict, Croghan explained, "It's a totally different situation. In the Klamath; we own projects, we own reservoirs, we own canals. In the John Day, we don't own anything."

The Bureau doesn't plan to own anything here, either, he added. While Bonneville Power Administration has the authority to provide funds to tribes and nonprofit groups for mitigation-based land acquisitions, the Bureau doesn't share in that authority.

"Land acquisition isn't something we can do," Croghan said.

Even water rights "purchases," as proposed in the Bureau's "programattic environmental assessment" for the Middle Fork, North Fork and Upper Mainstem John Day River subbasins, would not represent actual Bureau acquisitions in the strictest sense of the word. Croghan said if the Bureau purchases water rights, these rights will be converted to instream flows under the auspices and authority of the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Most conservation workers in the basin are adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward the Bureau's plans. They understand that the Bureau's presence in the basin is driven by a mandate to mitigate for Columbia River dams by facilitating riparian habitat improvements and increased flows for threatened and endangered fish. Whether the agency will tread lightly and achieve its goal of partnering remains to be seen.

"A lot of it depends, I think, on how they choose to work with existing programs," said Alex Conley, coordinator of the North Fork John Day Watershed Council.

But, early on, Conley said he is impressed with Croghan's outreach efforts.

At the same time, the Bureau's entry into the basin, effective 2001, has not occurred without ripples. Some have looked askance at the Bureau's proposal to transfer water rights into instream flows as a mitigation tool. Conley said the watershed council expressed "pretty varied" feelings about the idea.

Conley also said he is drafting a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation expressing a general concern of the council that the Bureau's proposal for increasing flows looks too narrowly at water rights acquisitions and ignores other opportunities.

"The concern the council was expressing is, 'OK, if you're going to address flow problems, why have you limited yourself to one tool?'" Conley said.

Croghan explained that, again, the Bureau's authorities are limited, so that may explain the limited focus. However, everyone acknowledged that the Bureau's mitigation proposal remains a work in progress.

"There's quite a bit that's left to be seen," said Ken Delano, director of the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District.

While citizens await the final draft of the programattic environmental assessment, the delicate dance will continue, as the Bureau tries to find its place in a basin where local partners pride themselves on a longstanding tradition of progressive and voluntary habitat improvement.

As Delano noted of the Bureau's mitigation proposals, "We've been doing the same thing since before 1988, before the Endangered Species Act was much of a buzzword."

Signs of success

PORTLAND - Last year, the number of returning adult fall chinook at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River topped 474,000, the highest since counting began in 1938, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced.

Biologists with NOAA Fisheries said good ocean conditions contributed to the strong numbers. Combined with chinook returns from the spring and summer, the 2002 fall run provided the highest returns on record. Approximately 269,000 spring chinook and 127,000 summer chinook were counted at Bonneville Dam in 2002.

Officials with the Federal Caucus - the nine regional federal agencies responsible for natural resource protection and salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin - said focused regional efforts, led by federal, state, tribal and local entities, are also contributing to the rising numbers of returning spring, summer and fall chinook.

In addition to the 474,000 adult fall chinook that have passed the counting station at Bonneville Dam, 30 miles east of Portland, some 90,000 fall chinook have been harvested by both sport and commercial fisherman in the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam.

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