State water meters a hard sell - Despite paying little themselves, irrigators shy away from devices


Richard Roesler
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

OLYMPIA, WA-- Washington's Department of Ecology is having a hard time giving away money.

Since March, the state's environmental agency has been trying hard to hand out more than $3 million to help water users in key river basins install water meters and measure how much they're using.

The meters are required by law, Ecology says, and the state will pay up to 85 percent of the cost.

Perhaps not surprisingly, however, irrigators haven't exactly been elbowing each other out of the way in a rush to install meters -- even if they're nearly free. By last month, only 31 individuals had applied for the grants, for a total of about $90,000. Three conservation districts also recently applied for about $1 million.

"We still have more than $2 million left," said Ecology's water resources spokesman Curt Hart. "I wouldn't say we're perplexed, but we're certainly concerned. We expected just the opposite of this: a real run on the money."

To encourage people to apply for the cash, the state extended the deadline through next June. It's offering to pick up a larger part of the tab. And anyone pumping water -- even those not in the critical basins -- can now apply.

Farmers are reluctant, however, to start measuring, particularly since the law requires periodic meter reports to state water officials. Irrigators have worried for years that the state will someday try to tax water, and some fear that this is a step in that direction, said Toni McKinley, lobbyist for the Washington State Grange.

Also, she said, many water users feel that meters are a step toward further controls.

"People are in protection mode, survival mode," she said. "People want to protect the water they have."

Nine years ago, the state Legislature passed a law requiring people pumping water from rivers, aquifers or other natural sources to measure how much they're using. That was widely ignored, however, and the state didn't have the manpower to try to enforce the law.

Two years ago, several environmental groups sued Ecology to force compliance. In response, Ecology is ordering about 800 major water users in 16 "fish-critical" basins to install meters and start filing reports next year. The targeted areas include the Middle Snake, Walla Walla, Methow, Okanogan, Lower Yakima, Naches, Upper Yakima and Wenatchee basins, plus eight more on the state's west side.

The basic meters cost about $1,500 each.

The point of measuring water use, Hart said, is to get more accurate data on how much water is being used by water-right holders. Some irrigation-ditch irrigators, for example, assume they're using the water they're entitled to, but don't really know.

"Here we are, allocating water in basins across the state of Washington, and we're making assumptions that what's on paper is what's really being used," he said. "We're finding out that's not always the case."

Some irrigators question whether the meters are necessary at all. Dean Boyer, a spokesman for the Washington State Grange, said several members have received orders to install meters, but aren't in critical fish areas.

"I think there's still a lot of confusion about who exactly is required to meter," he said. "It appears that DOE is casting a very broad net."

Many irrigators can come up with water-use readings simply by checking their pumping data, said Tip Hudson, executive director of the state cattlemen's association.

"All that requires is a calculator," he said. "Most of the water users are pretty responsible about water use."


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