Ecology director unveils proposed water policy shift

This story was published 7/11/02

By Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald staff writer

Washington's top environmental official unveiled a potentially significant water policy shift Wednesday, hoping to restart a sidetracked Columbia River planning effort that has fallen more than a year behind.

Tom Fitzsimmons, director of the embattled Department of Ecology, preached with renewed energy about economic development, mutual trust and creative solutions to water gridlock during his first Tri-City water policy speech since climbing the world's eighth-highest peak on the Nepal-Tibet border.

Perhaps his most significant announcement was that the all-powerful National Marine Fisheries Service has given the state leeway to explore fish-protection options that could allow more water to be taken from the Columbia River without demanding a bucket-for-bucket replacement.

Now, Fitzsimmons just has to convince people he can make good, something that proved difficult even before he finished his presentation to a group of Mid-Columbia water and power leaders. His plans were received coolly in the Tri-Cities, given years of distrust and litigation over water issues.

"We've still got the same old Tom Fitzsimmons," said Darryll Olsen, Fitzsimmons' chief nemesis and a consultant for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. "He may be able to climb a mountain, but he can't lift a cup of water out of the Columbia River."

Within a few hours of Fitzsimmons' appearance, the irrigators fired him a letter accusing him of spouting "pure nonsense at best, or a gross mischaracterization of reality."

Others were more willing to give Fitzsimmons time to work out problems and find agreement on complex legal and political issues.

"He is trying to bring some standards of accountability and expediency to the department," said John Givens, Port of Kennewick director who sits on a committee that is recommending changes to the Ecology Department. "We'll see. It's a step in the right direction."

Fitzsimmons said Wednesday that the state's poor economic health is playing an increasingly important role in how his agency does business -- and that he expects new water rights to power the Tri-City economy after the vitrification boom at Hanford.

"The perfect environment is a wonderful objective, but people also need jobs," said Fitzsimmons, who is attempting to reform an agency that has been heavily criticized for obstructing economic development around Washington.

The economy "has been a factor in our work all along," he said, "but it has clearly a renewed importance."

As part of the river planning process, Fitzsimmons has called for an economic review to maximize benefits of water use.

He also said he would consider putting state water rights staff in the Tri-Cities as part of an effort to increase trust in his agency. Already, the Ecology Department has a Tri-City staff of more than 80 working on regulatory issues related to Hanford cleanup. That branch of the agency enjoys substantially better public relations than the water side.

In the Tri-Cities, the key will be how the state addresses the federal "no net loss" policy on the Columbia River, which has amplified water squabbles along the river as farmers, cities and developers seek water rights that can't be interrupted in the summer when flows fall far below what some say is the optimal level for fish.

Fearing reprisals from NMFS, the Ecology Department has been reluctant to issue water rights without such conditions -- although Fitzsimmons said that is his goal.

"We understand that an interruptible water right is no right at all for irrigators," he said. "I am pretty confident that we could issue ... real water and still meet the needs of fish."

The irrigators association responded to Fitzsimmons' visit with an invitation to settle an ongoing lawsuit they filed to force the state to issue water rights without conditions that restrict use. And the irrigators made it clear that they still won't participate in the Columbia River Initiative unless the state decides to settle.

"If you are suggesting (otherwise)," the irrigators said, "we respectfully recommend that you should go jump in the Columbia River -- provided that you and your staff can identify enough water for your safe landing."

Fitzsimmons said the process will go on regardless of who else participates. He aims to adopt a final rule in early 2004.

Reporter Mike Lee can be reached at 582-1542 or via e-mail at


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