JOHN DAY - Like a salmon trying to leap waterfalls, Ken Delano has grown accustomed to jumping over regulatory hurdles to build fish-friendly devices in the John Day River Basin.

"It's very time-consuming, and it's very expensive. ... It just takes literally months and months to get every project going," the director of the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District said with exasperation.

Delano may find relief from this maddening paperwork shuffle, and, ironically, he may find this relief from an unlikely source - a lengthy document with an equally lengthy title called the "programattic environmental assessment for implementation of Action 149 fish habitat improvement measures from the December 2000 National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion of the Federal Columbia River Power System in three John Day subbasins in the Mid-Columbia River steelhead evolutionary significant unit in Central Oregon."

Released November 2002 and due for republication with public comments this spring, the "programattic environmental assessment" is a broad-based fisheries-improvement proposal drafted by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The draft document "analyzes the environmental impacts of implementing a 10-year program of improving streamflows and correcting fish passage and screening problems" within three subbasins - the Middle Fork, North Fork and Upper Mainstem John Day River. The reason for the Bureau's interest in the basin is dam mitigation. A biological opinion from the the National Marine Fisheries Service instructed the Bureau to improve upriver habitat for a host of dwindling fish runs as a way to mitigate for the presence of dams on the Columbia River.

The programattic environmental assessment aims to fulfill the NMFS mandate, but it aims to do so without subjecting every fish diversion and fish screen to repetitive analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"It's our attempt to streamline the process, that once we can do projects, we won't have to do as much paperwork," explained Mark Croghan, the Bureau's subbasin liaison in John Day.

Delano, similarly eager to avoid excess paperwork in his job, hopes the conservation district can piggyback on the Bureau's streamlined planning.

"I would like us to have a programmatic consultation letter that would say, if we're doing a diversion dam, for instance, and it meets these criterion and these specifications, it doesn't have to go through another consultation. Then it would cover many sites, instead of one site at a time," he explained.

Croghan was tentative about assuring an umbrella of exemptions. He said the Bureau's proposal should streamline planning for the federal agency. However, whether this shortened process would be granted to partners remains unclear. And Croghan said the regulatory requirement of consultation, where projects must undergo the scrutiny of regulatory agencies such as NMFS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pending their approval, may not change under the Bureau's proposal. The planning process simply will be accelerated based on the baseline of analysis provided in the programattic environmental assessment, he said.

Anyone wanting a copy of the final programattic environmental assessment can call the Bureau of Reclamation in Portland at (503) 872-2798.

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