Eastern Washington: Few Takers for Water-Rights Money
Since the state Legislature came up with money two years ago to buy or lease water rights, there have been few takers.
Last year, lawmakers broadened the program so more owners of water rights could participate. But so far, sellers are still scarce.
All this leaves the state Department of Ecology in the unusual position in these tight budget times of having some $5.5 million to spend but no one to spend it on.
"It's just not been as popular as some people thought," said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger. Chandler has worked to broaden the circumstances under which owners can sell or lease to the state.
For example, it used to be that the program was limited to times of drought and to streams where a fish was listed as endangered. The Legislature lifted those restrictions last year.
Others say the problem with the program is its home in the Department of Ecology. Water rights and a government agency, they say, mix as poorly as oil and water.
"The agricultural community is not particularly amenable to government interference," said Yolanka Wulff, executive director of Washington Water Trust, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization.
Washington Water Trust works with farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts, tribes, public agencies and others to lease or acquire water rights to restore water to small streams and tributaries.
Water-rights owners did, however, take advantage of Ecology's water program during the 2001 drought. The department signed 23 leases that year for sums ranging from $2,760 for 23 acre-feet to $1 million for 33,322 acre-feet.
On a per-acre-foot basis, the prices ranged from $70 to $600. An acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot.
Two leases were signed with individuals owning rights from the Yakima River: $30,000 for 232 acre-feet and $52,500 for 408 acre-feet.
Prices are based on market value, but vary considerably across the state. At $600 an acre-foot, the Walla Walla basin commanded the highest dollar.
Curt Hart, spokesman for the water resources division of Ecology, said the water acquisition program is focused on 16 basins, including Yakima and Naches, where occasional low flows threaten fish, but he said the department can consider leases outside those basins.
The program isn't limited to leases. Donations, which can have tax benefits for the owner, as well as outright purchases, are welcomed.
For the uninitiated, however, the process can be complex. All water transfers go into Ecology's water-trust program. The steps require the legal transfer of the deed followed by an administrative action at Ecology to make a record of the change.
Farmers often balk at the process because they fear Ecology will take their water rights under the state's "use it or lose it" law, called relinquishment, Wulff said.
"There is a hesitancy to have their water right put under the microscope by Ecology," she said.
Whether the fears are valid or not, they are real, said Toni McKinley, legislative lobbyist for Washington State Grange.
"Mistrust is bleeding into every government agency in Washington. And there's absolutely no outreach by Ecology to overcome it," McKinley said.
Hart said Ecology has no ulterior motives.
"We are not here to take anyone's livelihood," he said.
Wulff said Washington Water Trust can examine the status of individuals' water rights and advise them whether they are at risk of losing it. Owners have to show their water has been put to "beneficial" use — for irrigation, water supply, stream flows — for the preceding five years.
"From us, they get a free look before they have to deal with the government," Wulff said.
Washington Water Trust has about $1 million for water acquisition and lease for the coming year.
Water rights program finds few want to sell
YAKIMA, WA- Money is tight in state government right now, but at least one program - with a $5.5 million budget for the transfer of water rights - can't seem to give it away.
"It's just not been as popular as some people thought," said state Rep. Bruce Chandler (R-Granger).
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