‘Mitigation banking’

‘Mitigation banking’
Project would allow smaller fish-habitat improvements to slide in favor of bigger returns
By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune

August 2, 2015

State fish managers hope a new, big-picture approach to fixing fish-passage barriers by bypassing otherwise required work on some bridges and culverts in favor of larger barriers will generate greater benefits for wild salmon and open more usable habitat for them.

But skeptics are warning that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shouldn’t give up on small pieces of wild salmon habitat in exchange for removing or retrofitting dams that could be rectified through other financial avenues.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Transportation plan to launch a three-year pilot project to see whether this so-called “mitigation banking” holds water and creates a bigger bang for the bucks spent on removing barriers during road projects.

Under the proposed program, ODOT would get waivers from requirements to fix or replace culverts and bridges to meet current fish-passage requirements during up to a dozen road-construction projects, provided the blocked area contains less than a half-mile of usable habitat.

The money that ODOT would have spent on that work instead would be “banked” toward bigger projects, such as those in the agency’s Top 10 list of fish-passage barriers, theoretically opening up more habitat for more wild salmon species than the combined smaller waived projects.

The pilot project would hinge on creating, testing and validating a sophisticated computer model that would grade the lost habitat in the waiver projects and quantify the gained habitat by fixing the larger, higher-priority barriers, according to the agency.

The proposal also calls for the big project’s fish benefits to be at least three times that of the total possible habitat not opened in the smaller, undone projects, according to ODFW.

“We want to make sure there’s no question that there are large benefits for fish,” says Dave Stewart, the ODFW-ODOT fish-passage liaison.

ODFW is seeking approval for the project from the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission when the commission meets Friday in Salem.

If the project is adopted, the test work would be done in the north coast area over the next three years, with each of the smaller waiver projects blocking no more than a half-mile of usable habitat, Stewart says. The streams in question likely would have steeper gradients and be used by wild steelhead and cutthroat trout rather than salmon, according to ODFW’s analysis of the pilot project.

The proposed mitigation site would be an ODFW diversion on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Trask River, where water is diverted to fish-rearing ponds, Stewart says. Analysis shows that improving passage at that diversion would open more than 20 miles of habitat to wild coho, chinook, steelhead and cutthroat trout, he says.

Environmental groups such as WaterWatch of Oregon, the Native Fish Society and Oregon Wild are looking warily at the pilot project. They fear that agencies like ODFW are writing off habitat in small streams in favor of larger, more visible projects instead of pushing for removing obstructions in all wild salmon streams.

While the environmental groups believe the concept sounds attractive on paper, they point out in a letter to ODFW that similar approaches to wetland, air-quality and water-quality mitigation have fallen short of their goals. Furthermore, the groups fear that the approach could lead to abandoning habitat in smaller streams in favor of improving passage at more high-visible impediments that could be removed using other funding.

For instance, the groups believe ODFW should feel a “significant social and political obligation” to improve fish passage at its Trask diversion site and not trade habitat blocked by ODOT projects to do so, the group’s letter states. That way, the 20-plus miles of habitat for wild salmon and steelhead in the Trask basin would be opened without giving up on up to six miles of streams where ODOT will receive waivers.

The project also could lead to less overall funding for fish-passage projects because agencies such as ODOT would have no reason to take part unless it was a cost-saving venture, the letter states. Also, lost habitat on small streams may be too valuable to those systems even if the distance of habitat is short, the group warns.

“We’d like to see all these passage problems get fixed in smaller streams and still find a way to get funding for these bigger projects,” says Brian Posewitz, WaterWatch’s staff attorney who wrote the letter on behalf of the groups.

Stewart says the pilot project would include extensive monitoring and ground-truthing of the computer models, which likely would have to be tweaked to account for habitat differences in various regions of Oregon.

“There’s a lot of things we need to work through before we can break it out statewide,” Stewart says. “After three years, if this thing isn’t working, we won’t force it out to the rest of the state.”