'You must comply' - Program to aid irrigators - 300 out of compliance with federal law

Mar 25 2002 12:00AM  By Andy Porter of the Union-Bulletin

It is believed that 300 irrigators or more in the river basin are not in compliance with federal law.

A program to help irrigators protect threatened fish and comply with federal laws will open for enrollment again in April, probably for the final time.

The Cooperative Compliance Review and Cost Share Program will start taking applications April 1, said Mike Bireley, regional officer with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The first enrollment period ended last year and brought about 300 irrigators into the program to fit fish screens on irrigation pumps in the Walla Walla River Basin.

The program helps pay up to 85 percent of the cost for irrigation pump screens to bring irrigators into compliance with federal Endangered Species Act protection rules.

The screens are designed to keep threatened bull trout and steelhead from being pulled into pumps and killed.

Despite the initial response, Bireley said there are at least another 300 irrigators or more in the river basin not in compliance with federal law. They could face enforcement action, such as fines, if they do not take steps now, he said.

The federal Endangered Species Act protection rules are already in effect, but regulators have held off enforcing the law to give farmers and irrigators a chance to comply voluntarily.

However, at some point, Bireley said, ``we're going to exhaust our options for voluntary compliance'' and enforcement actions will begin.

About $327,000 in grants obtained from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Bonneville Power Administration are being used to help pay for design, construction and installation of screens for the initial group of applicants.

Since those funds are already allocated, new applicants will have to wait until more funds are found, either from the state, BPA or other sources, Bireley said.

``The new people who come in this year will be dependent on the funds we can obtain in the future,'' he said. But, by signing up now ``they will be under the umbrella for reduced risk for being out of compliance.''

Another reason for irrigators to apply is that it will help the Department of Fish and Wildlife seek funds from sources such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board if Fish and Wildlife officials can show there is a pool of people ready to benefit, Bireley said.

Applicants will also receive technical assistance to comply with federal rules and ``they'll benefit from all the work that's been done so far,'' Bireley said.

This includes design and engineering work done by Walla Walla Community College's irrigation technology program to create self-cleaning screens that satisfy National Marine Fisheries Service specifications.

Working under an agreement with the Walla Walla County Conservation District, college staff and students helped design and fit prototype screens at 45 pilot sites on streams such as Yellowhawk Creek.

Fisheries service workers have inspected the installations and approved them, clearing the way for work at other sites, he said.

``The college has been going 90 mph cranking out designs and (state Department of) Ecology has been going 90 mph getting out permits,'' Bireley said. ``I look back on the last two years and we have come a tremendous distance.''


Cooperative Compliance Review and Cost Share Program application packets can be obtained by:

Calling the Department of Fish and Wildlife at 527-4138. Callers will need to provide their name, address and phone number. Writing to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Compliance Program, P.O. Box 456, Walla Walla, WA 99326.


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