Funding solution for Erwin fish hatchery still in question

Brad Hicks • May 28, 2014 at 10:34 AM

KNOXVILLE — A working group tasked with developing recommendations for a long-term funding solution to continue trout stocking programs in some Tennessee Valley Authority tailwaters and reservoirs has several recommendations in mind, and those involved are seeking the public’s input on these recommendations.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Georgia Department of Natural Resources hosted a public meeting at TVA headquarters in Knoxville on Tuesday to present the recommended funding alternatives and to garner input and answer questions regarding them.

“Absent a funding solution, the Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated that they will terminate trout production and stocking at TVA projects,” Terry Cheek with TVA said at Tuesday’s meeting.

In May 2013, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander helped broker a deal to ensure Tennessee’s national hatcheries — the Erwin National Fish Hatchery and the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery in Celina — would receive funding for at least the next three years. As part of this agreement, the TVA committed to providing more than $900,000 annually from 2014 through 2016 to support federal fish operations that provide trout stocking programs in tailwaters and reservoirs of 12 TVA dams in Tennessee and Georgia.

Alexander previously said other federal agencies that construct dams on waterways across the country purchase fish from the USFWS to mitigate the loss of fish caused by this construction. At the time of the agreement, Alexander said he had worked with the TVA for around 1½ years to see if a similar agreement could be reached.

The agreement was signed by the TVA, TWRA, USFWS and GDNR. Another component of the agreement was that these agencies agreed to form a working group to help identify a long-term funding source. This group — the Trout Hatchery Funding Stakeholder Working Group — is made up of senior management within the agencies, around a dozen public stakeholder and at-large members. It met twice in 2013 and developed four long-term funding alternatives for the involved agencies to consider.

“None of the agencies feel that it is their obligation to fund the trout hatchery production stocking program,” Cheek said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has funded these programs with appropriated monies for decades. They have been directed by Congress and others to seek full-cost reimbursement for what it terms mitigation stocking in federal water projects. The TVA’s position is that impacts to the rivers from its dams have been compensated for many times over by the fishing, recreational, commercial and related economic benefits of those tailwaters, and that its ratepayers, which are the sole source of funding for TVA, do not have to pay for trout.

“The TWRA and Georgia DNR believe that trout stocking in federal water development projects ... is the obligation of the federal government and whose costs cannot be borne by licensed anglers.”

In December, the working group’s four recommended funding alternatives were finalized. The first alternatives would be to “restore policy, priorities and funding” of the USFWS for mitigation hatcheries. The second recommendation would be for the USFWS and TVA to form a partnership to fund USFWS costs to produce and stock trout at TVA facilities. The third would be for the USFWS, TVA and the states involved to develop a multi-source funding partnership to fund USFWS and TWRA costs to produce and stock trout at TVA facilities. The group’s final recommendation would be for TVA ratepayers to assume full responsibility for USFWS costs to produce and stock trout at TVA facilities.

Cheek said the Trout Hatchery Funding Stakeholder Working Group’s executive steering committee will make the final decision as to what it feels is the best funding solution, adding that public comment will play a role in the committee’s decision.

“The executive steering committee is going to consider the comments we receive, and they’re going to make a determination based on a preferred recommendation and approach for implementation,” he said.

Cheek said the goal is to have a funding solution recommendation no later than April 1, 2015 in order to allow for its implementation to synch up with hatchery stocking and production in 2017.

Trout Unlimited member George Lane was among those who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. He said the loss of fish stocking in tailwaters would be the economic equivalent of losing a “1,000-employer plant.”

“To me, TVA needs to look at this, not so much as mitigation, but look at it as an economic development issue,” Lane said. “If we lose it, we’re going to have to spend a whole lot more than a million dollars to go out and solicit a new 1,000-employer plant. To me, that is an open-and-shut decision.”

Knoxville’s Sean McCann said leaders across the region recognize the importance of outdoor recreation, and opportunities to provide it should be supported. He said the great outdoors and the opportunities it provides are a primary reason people move to the region and businesses relocate here.

“This would be a significant step back,” McCann said of losing the programs.

Facilities across the National Fish Hatchery System have been threatened in recent years by proposed budgetary cuts, but funding for the operations of the facilities has been allocated for the federal fiscal year. After last May’s agreement, some legislators and other officials expressed concern that facilities within the National Fish Hatchery System could soon close. This came after legislators received word that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was studying the possible closure of the hatcheries.

Several legislators, including Alexander, submitted a letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in September requesting that any actions in this study be delayed until lawmakers and the public had an opportunity to review its findings.

In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released this propagation report in which the agency did not recommend the closure of hatcheries in 2014. However, the report stated hatchery closures may be necessary in the 2015 fiscal year due to increasing operational costs and fiscal uncertainty with the National Fish Hatchery System.

Funding to keep facilities within the National Fish Hatchery System open through the remainder of the 2014 federal fiscal year was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on Jan. 17. This bill included more than $50 million for national fish hatchery operations, with $4.7 appropriated to the Corps of Engineers to reimburse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue to operate mitigation hatcheries, and around $46.5 million to continue operations at every facility within the National Fish Hatchery System. None of these funds may be used to close any facility.

Tuesday’s meeting was recorded and will be posted to the websites of the agencies which hosted the meeting. The agencies will receive written comments from the public on the proposed options for the next two weeks. These comments can be made online at www.tva.gov/hatchery.

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