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La Grande Observer Daily paper 10/24/14

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By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The Grande Ronde River Watershed is a tiny tributary in the Columbia River System, but its value is greater than its size, and a loss of money could have riverwide consequences, according to one voice in the watershed health discussion.

The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that provides electricity to the Northwest from a series of dams, recently reported losses of more than $300 million. As a result of the losses, the BPA has notified the Northwest Power Planning Council of pending reductions of about $41 million to restore fish habitat.

Congress has required the BPA to provide money for the restoration of fish habitat lost when the dams were built. The Grande Ronde Model Watershed receives BPA funding for restoration projects within Union and Wallowa counties.

Three issues faced by the model watershed this year could affect riparian and in-stream restoration for years to come, said Jeff Oveson, executive director of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed.

The expected reductions in BPA's fish and wildlife funds and a change in the federal agency's accounting methods, along with a possible cut in federal money earmarked for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, could create severe problems for Northeast Oregon's efforts to improve stream and riparian health.

The change in BPA's accounting process means no new projects for 2003, Oveson said, but over time, the new methods will not affect projects and will "in the long run, be beneficial."

For the next year, however, the model watershed will be paying for projects begun two years ago.

"We obligated funds for '01 and '02, and the work was either not finished or not billed," Oveson said. "In the past we could take money from the budget the year the project began and carry it over."

That is no longer the case, Oveson said.

"We'll be obligated to use all our '03 funding to finish '01 and '02 projects," he said.

Earlier this month, BPA notified the Northwest Power Planning Council of its plan to reduce the funds allocated for the Columbia Basin.

At the same time BPA is talking about reducing money, Oveson said he understands that a major funding source for the state board (OWEB), the federal Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, is at risk.

"It's not been going well in Congress," Oveson said. "A lot of money in a lot of programs will go to homeland security."

The federal fund is supplemented with money from the Oregon Lottery, he said.

OWEB reports that the state board funded 19 projects at $1 million in Union County and 13 projects at $3.6 million in Wallowa County from July 2001 to December 2002. Matching dollars increased the restoration investment to $3 million in Union County and $13.1 million in Wallowa County.

Oveson said he does not know how much the model watershed would lose, but he said he would not be surprised if the losses are greater than $1.5 million.

"The impact could be greater than that," he said.

BPA has said it will announce its decision on funding watershed health projects on Feb. 21.

"Everything in the Columbia Basin will be impacted," Oveson said. "We don't know from day to day what to expect."

Private landowners throughout the two counties have paid for in-stream and riparian improvements with BPA funding, Oveson said.

"The investment on private land has been immense," he said. "That's at risk. A lot of landowners can't afford to do what they'd like to do on their property without some help."


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