Irrigators file intent to sue state Department of Ecology over water rights - it's farmers versus fish under mandated ESA


By John Stang
Tri-City Herald staff writer

The Columbia-Snake Rivers Irrigators Association intends to sue the state to force a quick decision about whether the Department of Ecology will open up the Columbia River to additional water withdrawals.

The irrigators association on Thursday mailed a notice of intent to sue to the agency that handles water rights applications, sparking another in a long string of legal skirmishes between the Ecology Department and a group of water users determined to loosen the state's grip on water rights.

The legal notice said if the state does not rule on the irrigators' petition for water withdrawals by Dec. 1, the association will file a lawsuit in Superior Court to try to force state action.

The association contends that state law requires an Ecology Department decision within 60 days after the Oct. 1 petition was filed. If the state rejects the irrigators' petition, the association plans to appeal to Gov. Gary Locke, who already is under pressure to improve the state's economy.

The Oct. 1 petition -- signed by irrigators and about a dozen state legislators -- asks the state to allow water users to access a 1.3 million acre-feet "reserve" behind John Day and McNary dams. That water was set aside in 1980 when California was thinking about tapping the Columbia River and represents an enormous amount of development potential for farms and cities along the river.

The lawsuit threat was spurred by an announcement last week that the state is starting an 18-month process to set up rules for how Columbia water should be used.

Association officials told the Tri-City Herald's editorial board Thursday that they believe the state's initiative illegally puts their petition on hold indefinitely.

Ecology Department Director Tom Fitzsimmons "doesn't want to accomplish anything except to do nothing," said association member Ron Reimann of Franklin County's T&R Farms.

State officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday; however, they repeatedly have said they are trying to find solutions to water problems that plague the region.

The main issue remains how the state handles the federal no-net-loss water policy, which hampers development by making it very difficult to take more water out of the river to protect salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act.


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