Water Rights: Columbia Snake River Irrigators Assoc., Dept. of Ecology, develop new proposals


By Anna King
Tri-City Herald staff writer

The latest plan for balancing the water needs of migrating fish with those of industry and communities was unveiled Tuesday.

The Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association and Washington Department of Ecology developed the new proposals, which they agreed to develop after stepping away from a court fight last year.

The draft plan aims to create a program to help irrigators with water rights on the Columbia River issued after 1980. It now is up for public review and could be adopted as soon as April.

The issues involved stem from a rule the state adopted in 1980 to establish minimum Columbia River flows. That rule said that when river flows reached certain drought levels, irrigation rights issued after 1980 could be interrupted or stopped.

That became a major problem for farmers with water-hungry crops and for the banks that make farm loans, said Darryll Olsen, board representative for the irrigators association.

And in 2001, that rule was tested. Severe drought and low water flows on the Columbia sent the state scrambling to find water for some of the junior water users and the rule was hotly challenged by irrigators.

"It never had to be implemented until the drought of 2000-2001," said Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the Ecology Department. "There were about 300 water rights subject to restrictions."

The Ecology Department said it was a state responsibility to protect the minimum flows, senior water rights and fish, Redfield-Wilder said.

The irrigators argued water drawn from the Columbia River would have no major effect on river levels, water temperature or salmon survival. And that drought conditions actually were more of an issue in smaller tributaries.

"The Columbia is a huge river. There is lots of water," Olsen said. "Visually, you wouldn't know the difference. There is just too much water there."

After a court battle, CSRIA and the Ecology Department agreed to develop a program to help irrigators with water rights issued after 1980.

And the state rule is under review by the National Academy of Scientists to see if minimum water levels for the Columbia should be adjusted.

The new proposals would require irrigators to comply with "best management practices" but in return would give them uninterruptible water rights if drought again affected the Columbia.

Participants also could be subject to an annual fee per acre, which would pay for mitigation costs.

Irrigators' participation would be voluntary. An explanation recently mailed to irrigators and other interested parties by CSRIA and the Ecology Department said, "Water users that choose not to participate would see no change in their existing water rights."

Olsen said the program would reward responsible water users. And the Ecology Department wants to plan for future demands on the river.

"People believe water is an infinite resource -- it's not," Redfield-Wilder said. "You need a balance between economic resources, ecology and communities."

The best management practices would include things many irrigators are doing already, Olsen said. For example, farmers are encouraged to use drip irrigation and cover crops.

The criteria would be stricter for irrigators with more than 100 acres than for smaller water users, said Lynn Coleman, environmental engineer for the Ecology Department.

But how the state would regulate irrigators who participate in the program, and where the money would come from, is uncertain, she said.


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