GOLD BEACH Top federal and state regulators met Thursday night to work on an out-of-control permitting process that threatened to shut down all stream and salmon restoration work for the summer.
They gathered at the request of Lucie La Bonte, chairwoman of the South Coast Coordinating Watershed Council.
Many of the 75 people who packed the Gold Beach City Hall had credentials as impressive as the 12 speakers.
Those who came to listen included representatives from the offices of Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith, and Rep. Peter DeFazio.
Mayors Bob Hagbom and Marlyn Schafer were there, as were representatives of ports from Bandon to Crescent City.
Concerned landowners and citizens drove in from Coos County and the Illinois Valley.
La Bonte said later that Rep. Ken Messerle, another audience member, had said he couldnt believe shed been able to get all of those people in the same room, as the legislature had never been able to do it.
La Bonte said it only took some phone calls. She said, I had an amazing teacher: Ann Ramp.
She said she knew most of the regulators and audience members from her work with ports, watershed councils, and the League of Women Voters.
Conspicuous by their absence were the Curry County commissioners, though La Bonte said she knew Cheryl Thorp was at the governors mental health summit.
Curry County Planning Director Chuck Nordstrom was one of the invited speakers.
By the end of the evening, the regulators had expressed some frustration with each other, and had begun to find common ground for solutions.
Emergency relief to allow watershed projects to go forward this summer may be announced as early as next week. The regulators also vowed to keep working on a long term solution.
La Bonte said she was first alerted to the crisis by Bruce Follansbee, coordinator for the Lower Rogue Watershed Council.
Follansbee had discovered that new federal permitting regulations could make it impossible to conduct in-stream work this summer, for watershed councils. Private landowners were facing the same problems.
La Bonte said she went to a meeting on the situation with Messerle, who expressed some concern about Larry Evans, the new director of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps of Engineers in Portland.
La Bonte said the governors office also had some initial problems with Evans, who moved from Florida six months ago.
Evans tried to put any misunderstandings behind him at the Gold Beach meeting. He immediately gave out his phone number, (503) 808-4370, and offered his assistance.
He said he arrived in Oregon in October and would like to work immediately on solutions to the new permitting problems.
He also said he will spend the next year developing long term solutions. Those may include umbrella permits and a tightening up of the review process to shorten waiting time.
Evans said hes found most misunderstandings come about from each federal agency focusing on its primary directive.
He said they dont think about their overlapping authority. He said by sitting down and talking with each other, they can find ways to remove unnecessary obstacles and delays.
Louise Solliday, from the governors office, said the permitting process was much simpler last year.
She said that was before salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act in many parts of the state.
She said permits also went through a different process with the corps depending on the Division of State Lands.
Solliday works on the Oregon Plan for salmon restoration. She said if someone had told her a few years ago that shed be spending her entire spring doing nothing but working with the permitting process, she wouldnt have believed it. She said each agency issues permits with conditions.
As a local landowner trying to help out and restore streams, I would imagine thats a pretty frustrating process, she said.
She said even watershed councils and soil and water conservation districts will be overwhelmed by the process.
Solliday said the state wants the process streamlined. It has been working with the corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service for general permits that would allow large wood and boulder placement projects to avoid having to go through the process individually.
Watershed councils would be able to do such work and report on individual projects later.
Solliday said the corps is working to have a permit ready in time for the start of the work season next week.
She said a statewide permit is needed for all endangered species. She said she has seen the fisheries services biological opinion on such a permit, which she said led to a lot of yelling.
Solliday said the corps is working on an exemption for culvert replacements too. That would still leave bank stabilization and habitat construction with permitting problems. She said those could be covered by a nationwide permit.
It will be a long, hot summer, she said, A lot of work wont get through this year.
She said the permitting process may convince private landowners to not bother with steam restoration work.
Solliday said the state has two long term solutions in mind. The first would be a state programmatic general permit from the corps.
It would be administered by the Division of State Lands. If state lands approved a project, it would automatically be approved by the corps, within certain guidelines.
State lands could offer one-stop shopping for fill and removal permits. Solliday hopes the system can be in place by Jan. 1.
In the second solution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would transfer authority to administer a section of the federal Clean Water Act from the corps to the state. Again, state lands would be able to offer one-stop permits.
Solliday said all regulatory agencies have limited staff to handle permits. She said under this years regulations, an additional 2,000 watershed projects will be added to the burden.
Im hoping this is a Y2K burp, she said, We didnt see this coming soon enough.
La Bonte said port projects are already experiencing delays waiting for permits. She asked people to imagine what the delays would be like if the watershed projects were added on.
Eric Metz, of state lands, said both streamlining solutions would have benefits, but at a price.
He said his department would need to add seven to 10 people for the first solution, and 10 to 14 for the second. He said he would receive no federal funding to do so.
He said the second solution would be more complete, but would require statutory changes.
To illustrate the current problem, La Bonte took a sample application for a culvert replacement project to the speakers and asked them to explain their roles in the process.
The application went first to Russ Stauff of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. His department makes recommendations on project design and timing to state lands and other agencies.
He said fish and wildlife advises applicants on what those recommendations will be.
La Bonte next took the application to Curry County Planning Director Chuck Nordstrom.
He said he would sign off on the application within minutes if it was submitted with the proper land use compatibility statement.
He said the countys land use plan calls for the preservation of fish habitat, and that fill and riprap projects can cause problems.
The application proceeded to Mike McCabe of state lands. He said it would be easy to process and would take only 15 days.
He said neighbors would have to be given time to express concerns, which more do these days.
La Bonte went to Ron Marg of the corps next. He said it would take about six weeks to get concurrence with the fisheries service, after consultation.
Frank Bird of the fisheries service said he would review the application for completeness. The project would need to be evaluated as likely to affect resources or not likely to adversely affect. He said more information could be asked for.