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Gregoire Signs Columbia River Plan

by Shannon Dininny, Associated Press, February 16, 2006

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Calling it a breakthrough in the 30-year stalemate over wrangling water needs in Eastern Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law Thursday a Columbia River management plan that has been praised by conservation groups and irrigators alike.

Away from the capital building in Olympia, others charged the bill was a backroom deal that locked out the public and sacrificed the region's largest waterway.

Water users and conservationists have been battling for decades over water rights for the Columbia and its tributaries, with one side seeking more water for communities and commerce while the other fights for sufficient water for threatened fish runs. The dispute becomes particularly heated during drought years.

The new bill seeks to make more water available in the future by increasing storage in new reservoirs.

The bill also allows the state to sign regional agreements with communities or other groups seeking new water rights in the near-term in exchange for mitigation efforts.

"This bill bridges our relationship with an extraordinary waterway, by protecting human needs while preserving our salmon runs and the natural heritage of the Columbia," Gregoire said, surrounded by the lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who hammered out the deal.

The bill resulted from weeks of closed-door negotiations between lawmakers from both parties and interest groups representing the environmental community, irrigators and farmers. But some groups with a deep interest in the river complained that they were left out.

"We were absolutely amazed, and somewhat appalled," said Bob Heinith, hydro program coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which calls for salmon recovery efforts on behalf of the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes. Heinith said tribes were particularly concerned that the state adopted a plan without considering the impact to the entire basin.

"There's definitely some hard feelings, at least among the tribes, in that there really wasn't a consultation process. This thing was kind of railroaded through," he said.

In Olympia, Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, carried with him a 100-inch blue stick, with three inches of green at the top. Morton said the stick represented the Columbia, while the green represented the human use of the water.

"This is for prodding on to new horizons to go beyond where we are, to where we hope to become - one of the leading examples throughout the United States of water storage, water conservation and voluntary agreements," Morton said.

Mo McBroom of the Washington Environmental Council, called the bill a huge step forward.

"The world of water is big and there's room for disagreement," she said. "But looking at this in longer term, creating a framework within which we can all work together to solve long-standing problems is the biggest win of all."

The proposal was originally floated by former Gov. Gary Locke as one of his last acts before leaving office in early 2005.

Gregoire scrapped Locke's plan after taking office, and asked lawmakers to work with stakeholders and the state to craft a new version.

The plans are similar in some ways - two-thirds of the new water in storage would go to farmers, cities or other uses, and one-third would remain in the river to preserve adequate river flows for fish.

The difference is that the current proposal relies on storing water that was already in the river, said Shirley Nixon, staff attorney for the nonprofit Center for Environmental Law and Policy. Locke's proposal had also proposed buying back water rights or new water from Canada.

"This bill essentially says the river is going to donate blood to itself for later," Nixon said. "I can't say we're pleased at all with this bill."

The plan is contingent on a $200 million bond package that must be approved by the Legislature before the session ends March 9.

The measure also creates a Columbia River Basin water supply development account that is to be financed by $10 million set aside by the Legislature last year. An additional $10 million from the supplemental capital budget is expected to be approved by the end of session.

Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
Gregoire Signs Columbia River Plan, February 16, 2006

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