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Crafters of Columbia River Bill
Found Middle Ground

by Peggy Steward, Staff Writer
Capital Press, February 25, 2006

The Columbia River Water Resource Management bill signals the end of decades of gridlock, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire said when she signed the bill Feb. 16 in Olympia.

The bill calls for new water storage development and water conservation projects. Of water from new storage, two-thirds would be allocated for out-of-stream uses, including irrigation, industry and municipal growth, while one-third would be used to support in-stream flows for fish.

The bill provides for voluntary regional agreements between the state Department of Ecology and water users and includes a framework and time line for issuing new water rights.

"For 30 years, people have been wrangling over the best way to support the water needs of Eastern Washington, and protect and restore our native salmon runs on the Columbia River," the governor said. "Now we have a road map towards achieving those goals."

The bill sailed through both houses of the Legislature, and politicians lined up to praise the bipartisan efforts behind the bill. The bill hinges on a funding package that is expected to pass, and includes $10 million appropriated in 2005, $10 million from the supplemental budget lawmakers are expected to approve this year, and an additional $200 million in bonding authority over 10 years.

The river management bill was negotiated in closed-door sessions, over five days and more than 35 hours of meetings and conference calls among key stakeholders hand-selected by Sens. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle, and Bob Morton, R-Orient, members of Gregoire's Columbia River Task Force. The task force met for a year, examining former Gov. Gary Locke's failed Columbia River Initiative and trying to come up with a new strategy.

The compromise bill was hammered out by John Stuhlmiller, of the Washington Farm Bureau; Pat Boss, representing the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association; Rob Masonis, of American Rivers; Mo McBroom, of the Washington Environmental Council; and Kathleen Collins, of the Washington Water Policy Alliance. Also in on the negotiations was Gerry O'Keefe, of the Department of Ecology's water resources program.

Negotiators were enthusiastic, yet cautious, about the bill.

"I've been dealing with water policy since 1993, and this was the most exciting moment in my career," Stuhlmiller, assistant government relations director for the Washington Farm Bureau in Olympia, said in a telephone interview.

Poulsen and Morton set the table by outlining four items the bill needed to address, Stuhlmiller said. It had to encourage new storage and seek funding for it, to encourage voluntary regional agreements that do not set precedents, to inventory existing mainstem data, and to remove the conditions on the $10 million allocated in last year's budget.

The ag-interest groups and the environmentalist groups have often been at odds in the past, but during the talks, the participants respected each other's views, probed the real issues, and found ways around difficult issues that could have derailed efforts, Stuhlmiller said.

"We had a real commitment, and the governor agreed to put up real money," he said.

The agriculture groups and the environmental groups each got some of what they wanted in the bill, Boss said in a telephone interview. The irrigators wanted a template for the water rights process and a time frame that would provide more certainty. The environmental groups wanted to ensure that water rights from the VRAs would not have negative impacts on river flows.

Of the $200 million over the next 20 years, $132 million is earmarked for water storage and $68 million for conservation, Boss said.

"Our goal was that conserved water could be used for new water rights," Boss said.

While he was representing the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association in the negotiations, Boss, who is also a consultant to the Odessa Aquifer Replenishment Coalition, said he also had Odessa Sub-Area issues in mind during the talks. The bill includes conservation strategies and funding to look at the re-regulation of Potholes Reservoir, which could help ease the Odessa Sub-Area crisis.

"It is significant that a wide variety of people reached out across the cultural divide of the Cascade Mountains to make this happen," Masonis, director of American River's Northwest office in Seattle, said of the bill in a written statement.

The plan protects Columbia River flows during critical times for fish, Masonis said.

"What it does not do, however, is address the major harm to salmon and steelhead caused by federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers," Masonis said. "Those impacts must be addressed through changes at the dams themselves and other major investments in habitat restoration."

Before any new storage is built, the plan calls for the evaluation of costs and benefits, and alternatives such as conservation, Masonis said.

There were several times when the intense negotiations could have unraveled, but the participants persevered and found ways to get back on track, Boss said.

"The bill is an important first step, but there's still a lot of work to be done," Boss said. "It's a leap of faith. We hope the governor's office, the Department of Ecology and the Legislature continue to follow through."

Poulsen credited the negotiators for forging an agreement that, while not perfect, is something everyone can live with.

"We selected smart, moderate, pragmatic people we knew we could trust," Poulsen, the new chairman of the Senate Water, Energy and Environment Committee, said of the negotiators. "We told them whatever they came up with would stick."

Poulsen said he and Morton were able to control the Legislature and prevent any attempts to modify or change the bill that had been hammered out.

"I felt that if we could make a deal on the Columbia, it could help us on other water issues," Poulsen said in a telephone interview.

"I also wanted to show that a Democrat from Seattle isn't blind to issues on the east side of the state."

The bill, and the way it was negotiated, is helping to change the culture surrounding water issues in the state, Poulsen said.

The Columbia River Task Force included Department of Ecology Director Jay Manning; Sens. Jim Honeyford, R-15th District; Bob Morton, R-7th District; Erik Polsen, D-49th District; Craig Pridemore, D-34th District; Reps. Bruce Chandler, R-15th District; Bill Grant, D-16th District; Timm Ormsby, D-3rd District; Kelli Linville, D-42nd District; and Dan Newhouse, R-15th District.

Peggy Steward is based in Ellensburg, Wash.
Crafters of Columbia River Bill Found Middle Ground
Capital Press, February 24, 2006

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