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Irrigators Denounce Proposed Policy

by Associated Press
Capital Press - July 19, 2002

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- An effort by state Ecology Director Tom Fizsimmons to ask Columbia River water users for cooperation has been rebuffed by irrigators.

Hours after Fitzimmons met with a Tri-Cities economic development group Wednesday, irrigators released a letter accusing him of spouting "pure nonsense at best, or a gross mischaracterization of reality."

Fitzsimmons told Mid-Columbia water users and power producers that economic development will be considered in seeking creative solutions to gridlock that has gripped water management efforts for the past year.

Hundreds of water rights applications are pending, but have been delayed because of fish concerns, Ecology staff and budget shortages, and claims for more water than is available.

Under its Columbia River Regional Initiative, Ecology wants to develop an integrated state program that will allow access to the river's water while providing adequate protection for endangered salmon.

The initiative has been tied up in litigation, including lawsuits by the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

"We've still got the same old Tom Fitzsimmons," said Darryll Olsen, a consultant for the irrigators. "He may be able to climb a mountain, but he can't lift a cup of water out of the Columbia River."

That's a reference to Fitzimmons' recent climb of a mountain peak on the Nepal-Tibet border.

Fitzsimmons said Ecology wants to adopt new rules regulating Columbia River water use by early 2004.

The Ecology head told a committee of TRIDEC, the Tri-Citites' economic development group, that the National Marine Fisheries Service might be willing to give the state leeway to explore fish-protection options allowing more water to be taken from the Columbia River.

Ecology spokeswoman Cheryl Hutchinson July 11 characterized Fitzsimmons' talk as an effort to ask water users to work cooperatively to come up with a management plan.

"The court cases aren't working. We need you guys to quit suing us," Hutchinson said, paraphrasing her boss. "We need to sit down away from the courts . . . look at all the needs . . . . and try to meet a whole range of values and interests."

Some of those at the meeting were willing to give Fitzsimmons the benefit of the doubt.

"He is trying to bring some standards of accountability and expediency to the department," said John Givens, the Port of Kennewick director who sits on a committee that is recommending changes to the Ecology Department. "We'll see. It's a step in the right direction."

Fitzsimmons said the state's poor economic health is playing and increasingly important role in how his agency does business.

"The perfect environment is a wonderful objective, but people also need jobs," Fitzsimmons said. The economy "has been a factor in our work all along, but it has clearly a renewed importance."

As part of the river planning process, Fitzsimmons has called for an economic review to maximize benefits of water use.

The federal "no net loss" policy on the Columbia River has amplified water squabbles along the river as farmers, cities and developers seek water rights that can't be interrupted in the summer when flows fall far below what some say is the optimal level for fish.

Ecology has been reluctant to issue water rights without conditions, although Fitzsimmons said that is his goal.

"We understand that an interruptible water right is no right at all for irrigators," he said. "I am pretty confident that we could issue real water and still meet the needs of fish."

Associated Press
Irrigators Denounce Proposed Policy
Capital Press - July 19, 2002

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