By John Henderer
Tacoma Power reports talks are making progress toward a settlement agreement to guide operations of its Cowlitz River dams.
Tacoma officials plan to submit a document to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by Friday in hopes it will serve as the framework for a comprehensive settlement to be hammered out over the next two months.
The so called agreement in principle on lines fish passage facilities, hatchery operations, habitat improvements and recreation opportunities for which Tacoma will pay to obtain the license.
Since building Mayfield and Mossyrock dams in the 1960s, Tacoma has operated them without fish ladders, trucking dwindling salmon and steelhead runs around the dams to spawn.
Tacoma’s existing federal license expires Dec. 31, 2001.
Tacoma sponsored collaborative licensing talks for several years, beginning in 1996, but monthly meetings with state and federal resource agencies, Indian tribes and fish conservation groups failed to produce a settlement agreement. The meetings ended in December.
Later that month, Tacoma sent a license application to FERC to meet a deadline. Since then, Seattle mediator Martha Bean and Tacoma officials have been negotiating behind thenscenes with of the original group to craft a settlement.
The 17 page document dispersed last week to the resource groups represents “the final” product at this stage, Bean said in an April 26 e-mail accompanying the draft. She asked representatives to sign a statement in support and asking for time to negotiate until July 15.
Lewis County Commissioner Dennis Hadaller signed the letter Wednesday.
“They’re here. We’ve been here for a long time, and we get to work together,” Hadaller told The Chronicle on Wednesday. “We wouldn’t sign something that was way off in left field.”
As expected fisheries issues dominate the draft agreement. In general, the agreement expresses support for a move toward more natural fish and less reliance on hatcheries.
In the meantime, however Tacoma would have to upgrade the hatcheries it operates on the Cowlitz River.
The agreement provides several complex so-called “triggers” that must be met before Tacoma would construct a fish ladder over Mayfield Dam.
As an example, one salmon or head species returning to spawn have to exceed a “predetermined abundance level” in at least three of consecutive years, and studies would have to show adult fish swimming through Mayfield Lake “are able choose their tributary of origin” and survive the swim across Mayfield at rates determined by federal fisheries agencies to be “sufficient to achieve effective upstream passage” through a fish ladder.
In the agreement, Tacoma also agrees to pay up to $4.5 million to up-grade a fish collection facility Cowlitz Falls Dam where workers capture, tag and truck sea-going juvenile fish around the dams.
Tacoma also offers to pay up to $2.5 million to buy land and restore wildlife habitat. Elsewhere, the document reiterates Tacoma’s recent pledges, made in a mitigation payment deal with Lewis County, to take over some parks operations from the county.
Bean, Tacoma’s consulting mediator, heralded the document as “an historic agreement” noting it does not represent “perfection.”
“But it is very, very strong and does, I believes hold the best hope for the fish,” she said.
Bean urged resource group members to sign the letter addressed to David Boergers, secretary of the federal relicensing agency, petitioning him for more time to submit settlement terms, conditions and recommendations.
“It was not intended to serve as a place holder that would simply provide more time for further negotiations” said Toby Freeman, Tacoma relicensing coordinator.
Failing to obtain more time for the settlement would effectively leave the decision in federal hands in Washington D.C., Bean warned.
Rob Masonis, American Rivers conservation director at the group’s Northwest office in Seattle, said he hasn’t signed anything or been asked to sign anything.
“The focus has been on and continues to be on the agreement in principle,” Masonis said. “I think we’re getting there.”
May 4, 2000