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The Ins and Outs of Mitigation Dollars

Money is hard to come by these days; it’s true. If the need is for dollars to protect the environment and the various critters and humans that utilize it, the task becomes even more difficult. Of the many natural resource protection, enhancement, and restoration projects in the region, some of them featured right here in this column, a significant portion are funded or somehow connected to the funds made available through the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement for the ongoing operation of the two dams on the lower Clark Fork River. It is high time we had a talk about how this process works—especially in the case that you may have a project or idea that fits the criteria set forth in the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, an essential factor.

In the mid 1990s, the two lower Clark Fork dams were up for relicensing, a process that most large hydroelectric projects in the nation must follow. Avista Corporation, a Washington-based utility company that holds license to two dams on the lower Clark Fork River at Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge, decided at that point to take a non-traditional approach to the relicensing; they created the "Management Committee," a group of 27 stakeholders. This committee is comprised of a mélange of state and federal agencies, tribes, non-profit groups, and local government representatives; together they crafted the CFSA and continue to implement it today.

Through the CFSA, Avista has committed financial and technical support over a multi-decade timeframe to assist with wildlife, water quality, wetlands, fisheries and recreation projects in the river basin. Though many of the proposals are submitted and implemented by members of the Management Committee, the process is very much open to other entities. It is important that people understand this is not a grant program. Rather, it is the product of a collaborative, consensus-building approach to protect, mitigate and enhance resources associated with the operation of the two aforementioned dams.

The CFSA includes protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures to protect and improve specific aquatic and terrestrial resources in the "project area" near the dams, which is most of the lower Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed (from Thompson Falls downstream as well as Lake Pend Oreille and its tributaries). The PM&Es address very specific resources, all spelled out in the appendices of the CFSA. They are: fisheries, water quality, wetlands, wildlife, botanical, land use, recreation, aesthetics, and cultural resources.

"This is a neat example of a pretty high-powered power company taking an ethical approach to mitigating for impacts," says Chip Corsi, Panhandle Supervisor for Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "It is unique, innovative, and people have the opportunity to participate if they choose."

2009 will mark the 10 year anniversary of the CFSA—no easy feat in the light of some tough issues facing our region such as unprecedented growth and the associated impacts on fish and wildlife, as well as land and water resources.

The CFSA sets specific dollar amounts for each resource for each year, though that does not mean all of the funds are utilized each year, it just depends on the projects that are approved. There are smaller groups, much like subcommittees, that help rank, select, and guide the project proposals, though each proposal must, ultimately, be approved by the larger Management Committee. The subcommittees include the Water Resources Technical Advisory Committee and the Terrestrial Resources Technical Advisory Committee. Although most projects are generated by those already involved, others are encouraged to contribute as well.

In order to submit a proposal to the Management Committee, there are some tools that are available. First of all, familiarize yourself with the CFSA and the objectives set forth in the Protection, Mitigation, and Enhancement measures (see www.avistautilities.com/resources/hydro/clarkfork/ for more information). From there, Joe DosSantos or Nate Hall (both with Avista) can direct you to the appropriate contact. DosSantos works with tributary acquisition, water quality and fisheries projects, while Hall focuses on land management, recreation and wildlife habitat.

"A mitigation program is designed to make up for losses that are the result of an impact from a specific project," says Regional Fisheries Manager for IDFG Jim Fredericks. "A grant program could be much more broad and could be set up to fund any sort of projects the review committee supports."

Some examples of projects that fit the criteria and have been funded in the past include: the acquisition of key bull trout and wildlife habitat along the Bull River in Montana; the development and maintenance of recreational sites along the reservoirs; and a stream restoration project in Idaho.

In 2001, over 140 acres on the Bull River in Montana was purchased by Avista through the CFSA process. The parcel is protected by a conservation easement that ensures the key habitat contained in the shoreline and associated wetlands, forests, and meadows will be kept in its natural state perpetually. The project provides vital habitat for species such as bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, grizzly bear, mountain goats, moose, and mountain lions. The Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Conservancy, a local land trust that deals often with Avista and the Management Committee projects, holds the title and easements for the property.

Over 30 recreation sites above the Cabinet Gorge Dam have been created or enhanced through the CFSA in the last decade. The Bull River campground, for example, is located just off of Highway 200 (mile marker 11) in Montana. It is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and has been a work-in-progress for many years now. Some of these improvements include: a beautiful new day use picnic shelter, repairs to the boat ramp and parking area, a new boat dock, educational signage, two new restrooms, and a handicap access trail. The Bull River site offers 26 overnight campsites, swimming areas, picnic areas, drinking water, flush toilets, a boat ramp and handicap accessible dock, and fishing access.

In the Lower Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed, where there is an estimated 4,000 individual adult bull trout in Lake Pend Oreille alone, 1, 136 miles of stream/shoreline, and 49,755 acres of reservoirs and/or lakes have been designated as critical habitat.

"The realm of fisheries is usually the biggest issue [when it comes to dam mitigation]," says Idaho Department of Environmental Quality Tom Herron, a newcomer to the Management Committee. "I appreciate the group’s scrutinizing of funds and am impressed by the thorough nature of the project."

Gold Creek, a tributary to Lake Pend Oreille, is slated for some work to benefit native trout next year. The project will involve obliterating a section of abandoned road and stabilizing the section where the road crossed the stream. "Basically, there’s an old road where unauthorized use has created a wide, shallow crossing on Gold Creek," says Regional Fisheries Manager for IDFG Jim Fredericks. "The project is about narrowing the [stream] channel, stabilizing the banks, and then obliterating the road so it doesn’t happen again."

Though the CFSA is the product of a complex process, it is fairly straightforward when it comes to funding projects that meet its standards. All proposals must be in no later than the 1st of December each year. That is a final proposal deadline though, meaning that applicants would need to pitch the idea and develop if fully. For more information or assistance with proposal development, please call Joe DosSantos at 406-847-1284 or Nate Hall at 406-847-1281.

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Author info

Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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