DOE to deny water if they 'don't cooperate'

by Becky Blanton, Editor of The Klickitat County Monitor
Klickitat County, WA - 4/7/02 - Tom Fitzsimmons may be making good on his alleged threat to deny water to irrigators along the Columbia River if they didn't cooperate with his department and drop a lawsuit against the Department of Ecology.

The  (DOE) director announced last month that DOE may reduce water supplies to about 200 irrigators this summer.

In January Fitzsimmons allegedly told Columbia Snake River Irrigator Bud Mercer that he would cut off the water to the irrigators if the Mercers didn't exclude their application from the lawsuit.

Mercer applied for a water right that would give him about 8 gallons of water per minute from the Columbia River, but the state has said he couldn't use that water in July and August -- the height of the irrigation season.
The December lawsuit alleged irrigators would be injured by DOE s action, or lack of action, on issuing water permits.

Klickitat County joined the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association (CSRIA) and the City of Pasco, Washington in the lawsuit  against DOE on Dec. 14, 2001, requesting an injunction be issued against DOE s use of so-called flow targets when issuing water permits.

Fitzsimmons is alleged to have made the threat to Mercer only days before the court date regarding the suit.
Fitzsimmons threatened that if Mercer Ranches did not exclude its application from the CSRIA litigation ... (DOE) would interfere with the normal processing of Mercer's other water right issues," Kennewick attorney Brian Iller wrote in a letter to Timothy O'Neill of the Klickitat County Prosecutor's Office.

Whether Fitzsimmons is actually making good on his alleged threat to the Columbia Snake River Irrigators or is simply responding to a true water shortage remains to be seen. Klickitat County investigators haven t completed their investigation of his threats to the Mercers yet.

Fitzsimmon's latest announcement however means that irrigators will have one more thing to worry about as the summer progresses.

DOE claims the projected Columbia River is expecting the lowest water flows since 1977.
In a move reminiscent of the Klamath water basin issues of 2001, DOE is planning to interrupt water rights that were issued between 1980 and 1992 with the condition the Columbia River meet minimum flow targets -- targets that many charge are based on flawed and inadequate science.

In essence, those rights are junior to the flow targets set in 1980 for the river, meaning the Columbia gets water first.

Letters were sent to farmers and cities along the Columbia by DOE warn that their irrigation water may be cut off for at least a week at a time because of drought conditions across the Northwest.

And although farmers say they knew the river was down, the letters came as a surprise.

Klickitat County isn't affected, but Benton County, its neighbor to the east and the site of the County's largest seasonal employer - Mercer Ranches, will be affected.

According to reports in The Tri-City Herald, Douglas County has the largest number of water rights affected. Okanogan and Benton, have at least 65 water rights that might be interrupted. Franklin County has 13 interruptible rights, and Grant has four. Altogether, the rights include about 900 cubic feet per second of water, less than 1 percent of the April 1 target flows at John Day Dam.

 In a letter from water resources manager Bob Barwin for the Ecology Department in Yakima, irrigators were told, Based on predicted flows, you will be instructed whether you can divert water under your water right during the following week. Please note that water use under your water right will be curtailed for the entire week.
Depending on flows, irrigators in one region may be regulated while others aren't. But the current situation, she said, "is a pretty good guarantee that some people will be Crop damage in junior water districts in the Yakima Valley, is already expected.

According to one irrigator, the Yakima Valley is expected to get 38 to 40 percent of normal water supply.
The Ecology Department, however, said it must take action because the predicted river flows at The Dalles Dam during irrigation season are 56 million acre-feet, a little more than half of average. An acre-foot is enough to cover an acre 12 inches deep. When spring flow predictions dip below 60 million acre-feet, they prompt regulation under the Instream Resources Protection Program of 1980.

Fitzsimmons can choose not to follow the state s rule that says only in those situations when it is clear that overriding considerations of the public interest will be served, but irrigators say it's not likely he'll do so.

Becky Blanton
The Klickitat County Monitor

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