Water rights litigation likely headed for courts

This story was published 11/21/02

By Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald staff writer

The Department of Ecology and the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association entered court-ordered mediation Wednesday afternoon in an effort to settle litigation over Mid-Columbia water rights.

That kept agency Director Tom Fitzsimmons from taking the stand for at least a day and being asked to justify conditions his agency attached to a half-dozen water rights before the court. Given the parties' confrontational history and the stakes involved, odds did not appear to favor an out-of-court agreement.

"We hope there is some common ground to build a settlement," said Joye Redfield-Wilder, Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

"But (Thursday) morning, we might be in court."

Judge Dennis Yule asked his Benton County Superior Court colleague, Judge Craig Matheson, to try to resolve what otherwise is destined to be a precedent-setting case.

At issue is whether the state can issue Columbia River water rights with conditions on them that would make them useless in the summer when irrigators need water most. A large reserve of Columbia River water was set aside for development in 1980.

But the state is eager to avoid direct confrontation with the federal "no net loss" mandate that no more water be taken from the Columbia River to protect salmon.

The Ecology Department is crafting a policy of its own for water withdrawals, which Fitzsimmons repeatedly has said may provide scientific support for bucking the federal mandate. Irrigators' point man Darryll Olsen said he's supported a settlement all along, but agency officials refused to discuss his last offer. "I don't think they really want to settle it all," he said before Yule's announcement. "I think they are locked into this no-net loss policy.

"I don't have a lot of hope for mediation."

Redfield-Wilder said Fitzsimmons was to remain in town at least for Wednesday's mediation, which might allay some frustrations Olsen voiced.


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