Columbia Basin: Planned drawdown draws fears -a replay of Klamath Falls?

March 17th, 2003

By Shirley Wentworth
Tri-City Herald Basin bureau

Washington State - Columbia Basin residents fear a planned drawdown of Banks Lake could create a replay of the Klamath Falls, Ore., controversy, where farmers have been in an uproar over irrigation water being diverted to save fish.

"We are not ready to let ourselves become another Klamath Falls while the government sacrifices us to the god of fish," said Leslie Fanning of Royal City. "We won't let our way of life be destroyed."

Fanning and her husband, Gary, have started a petition supporting the three Basin Project irrigation districts' opposition to the drawdown. It also asks that another public hearing on the issue be held in Royal City before the public comment period ends April 11.

The water would be diverted to increase Columbia River flows to help endangered Snake River fall chinook juvenile salmon as they head down the Columbia River and pass McNary Dam. The proposal is the result of the Bureau of Reclamation being ordered by NOAA Fisheries (formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service) to find additional water to help the fish.

The bureau's proposed solution is to draw down Banks Lake by 10 feet to put an extra 133,600 acre-feet of water in the Columbia River in August and September.

"We think the fish could benefit if we could meet the flows," said Jim Ruff, an NOAA biologist.

The extra water also would help juvenile fish passing through the Hanford Reach on the Columbia. Although the fish runs usually peak in the last several weeks of July, Ruff said more water in August and September could help the Snake River stragglers, a mix of wild and hatchery fish.

"The biological diversity makes these fish important," he said.

Ruff also pointed out the water will be returned to Banks Lake in September. "We're not trying to grab people's water rights, and I hope people don't assume we'll take more water next year."

Ruff said the government also doesn't want a repeat of the Klamath situation, which has resulted in a morass of lawsuits. Some of that litigation stems from a record fish kill of 33,000 fish in the Klamath last July that was caused by a combination of low flows, warm temperatures and disease.

But Basin officials believe a Banks Lake drawdown would leave most boat launches high and dry and badly hurt summer tourism.

Grant County Commissioner Tim Snead said tourism is vital to the area's economy. He pointed out that in the area affected, 15 percent of families live below the poverty level and an additional 25 percent are below the low-income level of $24,000 a year.

Snead also fears a drawdown could cause health issues because it would form large mud bogs in the lake where mosquitoes could breed and potentially spread viruses such as West Nile.

"From our perspective, this impacts the customs and culture of Coulee City," Snead said. "They need to work with us on mitigating (economic consequences). If they do not, we'll challenge them."

Dick Erickson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, contends the amount of water taken from Banks Lake would not contribute substantially to the desired water flow in the river. And he said scientists disagree on whether increasing the river's speed would help salmon.

Erickson also said taking away the water would mean less power will be produced at Grand Coulee Dam, costing the irrigation districts $100,000 in power revenues. That cost would have to be passed on to farmers.

"The fact that they're messing with our water supply bothers us," Erickson said. "We don't want them to think they can do this -- it's had dire consequences for other areas."

However, Jim Blanchard, the Bureau of Reclamation's manager in charge of the proposed drawdown, said the Banks Lake water is important. While it isn't enough by itself, he said it would help reach the desired goal of reaching a river flow level of 200,000 cubic-feet per second.

"By itself, it could be argued that it's not significant but as part of a package it is," he said.

Water is already being diverted for the Columbia River flow from the Grand Coulee reservoir, as well as reservoirs in Idaho, Montana and Canada. Together, those reservoirs have up to 13 million acre-feet of water available to boost flows.

Blanchard said the earliest date a final decision could be made on the Banks Lake plan would be September.

"We just don't have a good idea which is the best way right now," he said. He said that's why the agencies are taking public comments now.


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