Animosity flowing in Washington water dispute - Enviros see it their job to enforce ESA where they perceive violations


The Oregonian

PESHASTIN, Wash. -- A water war is boiling in "the pear capital of the world" in what may be a taste of battles to come in farm country as environmentalists continue to assume a growing role in enforcing the Endangered Species Act in the Northwest.

The clash erupted after the Seattle-based Washington Environmental Council sent local irrigators a letter warning that they must quit diverting so much water to orchards and do a better job of helping endangered fish navigate Peshastin Creek -- or face the consequences in court.

The group says the letter was intended to encourage the irrigation district to work with the environmental group but was greeted like hate mail. Instead of engaging the council in discussions, the Peshastin Irrigation District quit improving its canals to stockpile cash for a court fight and refuses to meet with the council.

To date, the federal government has been the primary enforcer when it comes to policing irrigation practices that threaten fish. But now environmental groups increasingly see it as their job to try to enforce the Endangered Species Act wherever they perceive violations in the Columbia River Basin.

The council intended to make that point clear with a highly unusual challenge on the basis of irrigation diversion and stream-flow levels.

But the timing of the threat couldn't have been more volatile. Family pear farmers in this high valley just east of the Bavarian-themed, tourist-mobbed Leavenworth were bracing for harvest season when pears need a lot of water to live up to their billing as the tastiest pears on earth.

Just as Klamath farmers responded fiercely to the federal government's endangered species-related cutbacks on irrigation water in 2001, the Peshastin Irrigation District and the area's pear farmers are howling at what they see as an unfair shot from "west-siders."

"They picked the wrong people," said Joel Teeley, irrigation district manager. "Everyone out here is shocked."

From Teeley's vantage, the irrigation district has done everything possible to help fish, including spending almost half of its $350,000 annual revenues to make its irrigation canals more efficient.

From the council's vantage, Peshastin Creek is a perfect example of the hundreds of fragile tributaries that desperately need more water and more intensive care to keep endangered salmon and trout alive in the dam-clogged Columbia River Basin.

Council attorney John Arum said the group will continue to lobby for broad water-use reforms that force everyone, including farmers, to do what it takes to protect endangered fish. "But if we can't do it, we're going to go basin by basin to try to get water into these streams."

Arum said Peshastin irrigators overreacted to a cordial letter that essentially requested a dialogue and made clear that if progress is made no lawsuit would be necessary.

But even some local environmentalists and federal Endangered Species Act regulators say the threat has backfired, obscuring legitimate concerns about the creek and worsening relations between farmers and environmentalists.

It also inflamed Washington's perennial East-West animosities, with many farmers viewing it as yet another heavy-handed attack from "206ers" -- as one of them calls the urban masses in Seattle's area code.

Jeff Kraus, plant supervisor for Bluebird Pears, likened the council's negotiating style to a car salesman who puts a gun on the table, then leans back and says, "Now let's talk about buying that car."

"I can live with people being concerned about fish," said Dick Smithson, a third-generation pear and apple farmer who has lived on Peshastin Creek most of his life. "That's great. We all feel that way. But I can't deal with someone holding a 3,000-pound sledgehammer over my head."

The creek The creek in the spotlight is a gentle, rocky waterway this time of year that runs as narrow as a driveway in sections and ankle-deep along its banks.

Peshastin Creek starts near Blewett Pass and ends 22 miles later at the Wenatchee River, which drains into the Columbia. The creek is divided by an old wood-and-steel dam with a three-foot gap in the middle through which fish must leap -- more than three-feet high when the creek is low -- to enter prime spawning grounds.

On one side of the dam is the beginning of a 14-mile irrigation canal, which provides a portion of the water used by 800 customers, a mix of pear and apple orchards as well as residences in the Upper Wenatchee Valley.

When four dead salmon were found in the shallows below the dam last year, the Washington Environmental Council took interest.

Wading along the creek bottom recently, Arum, the council's attorney said, "You take water out of a creek like this and you basically kill the creek." But Arum was pleased there appeared to be at least 9.6 inches of water in the center of the channel -- the flow biologists say is needed for chinook salmon to get to their spawning grounds.

In fact, while Arum was wading, a good-sized salmon broke the surface, bucking upriver toward the dam before ducking out of sight into deeper water.

"If it was like this all the time, I don't think we'd be here," Arum said. He added that if the creek is this navigable for fish in late August, it proves the council's point that it's not that difficult to cater to both fish and farms.

But it's not always this easy, farmers say. Some years, the creek runs much lower -- even dry in parts -- no matter how much water is diverted. "They want more water than we have," said Teeley, the irrigation district manager.

The district has lined 30 percent of its Peshastin canal with pipe, Teeley said, adding that the canal uses a third of the water it did decades ago. He also noted other potential water-guzzling culprits, including 250 new homes sucking on wells above the dam.

Dale Bambrick, Eastern Washington team leader for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the creek sorely needs a good fish ladder at the dam. Bambrick also said the irrigation district needs to continue to find ways to divert less water, especially when fish are returning. But he sees progress.

"We're encouraged by the efforts they're taking," he said.

Bambrick said the council's legal threat worsened delicate relations between farmers and environmentalists. "They wanted to get the district to talk to them, but that was not the outcome."

Gordon Congdon, director of the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation agency, said his group has been impressed with how the district has handled fish concerns. He was surprised by the council's letter.

"The threatening nature of it didn't play well over here," Congdon said, adding that the timing "made local environmental groups look bad."

The council has asked for a meeting and the irrigation district has refused, offering only to let the environmentalists be heard at the district's October public meeting.

Teeley and farmers suggest the only long-range solution is some sort of reservoir above the dam. In other words, another dam that could save some of the spring runoff for later in the season -- an unpopular idea among most environmentalists and government regulators.

Until the council withdraws its threat to sue, Teeley said, there will be no discussion.

Jay Manning, president of the council, said it has already assured Teeley that the group wants to talk and help, not sue -- even if no progress is made by Sept. 7, when the council's 60-day notice of intent to sue expires.

"At this point we're not prepared to rescind the letter," Manning said. "We will continue to hold out our willingness to sit down and talk, any place, any time. But if they won't meet with us, at some point we'll have to go forward with litigation." Jim Lynch: 360-867-9503; 

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