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State Approves Lake Roosevelt Drawdown

by Shannon Dininny
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 25, 2008

MOSES LAKE, Wash. -- Washington state officially authorized additional water releases from the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam on Thursday, a move that has been in the works for months and opens the door for the first new water rights along the Columbia River in years.

The state Department of Ecology also approved $46 million for water storage and conservation projects throughout Eastern Washington.

Both steps stem from a 2006 bill approved by the Legislature to find new water supplies for growing communities in the region, improve water supplies during times of drought, and increase stream flows to help salmon survive late in summer.

As part of that bill, the state proposed drawing down Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam, by as much as 132,500 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot, or about 325,850 gallons.

One-third of that water will remain in the river for fish, and one-third will be used for new municipal and industrial water rights along the Columbia. The rest will provide surface irrigation for 10,000 acres of crops east of Moses Lake, where farmers have been relying on well water from the declining Odessa Aquifer, and to provide a more stable water supply for irrigators whose water rights are interrupted in drought years.

"For more than a decade, we've been at a stalemate," Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement. "Today we have broken that stalemate. We are writing a new chapter on how water will be managed in the West. We're making sure water is there when it's needed most - for people and fish."

The decision immediately drew criticism from at least one environmental group.

Rachael Paschal Osborne, director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said the state and federal governments failed to look at the impacts of climate change and an impending rewrite of a treaty with Canada over the Columbia River.

They also failed to consider how drawing down Lake Roosevelt will uncover pollution from an upstream zinc smelter in British Columbia, she said.

"This is a bad decision for the Columbia River, bad for taxpayers, and bad energy policy," she said.

The 2006 Legislature approved $200 million for conservation and water delivery improvement and storage projects across Eastern Washington. Of that, the $46 million announced Thursday will pay for a variety of projects, from making existing water delivery systems more efficient to storing water both above and below ground and recharging declining aquifers.

Bill McDonald, Pacific Northwest regional director for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and state Ecology Director Jay Manning praised environmental groups, irrigators, municipalities and counties for creating a coalition that compromised and changed attitudes about water rights.

"This 20-year war, where people's outlook was, 'I am going to win and the other side will lose,' everybody loses," Manning said. "That's what water has been about, at least in Washington, certainly in Eastern Washington."

The state reached agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, whose reservations border the lake, on payment for tribal costs of the drawdown. The Colvilles will get about $3.75 million a year and the Spokanes $2.25 million a year to enhance fisheries, protect the environment, preserve cultural resources and other activities. The money is not considered payment for the water.

In addition, local governments around Lake Roosevelt will receive $2 million to cover effects from the releases.

State and federal authorities continue to study the potential for large, off-channel reservoirs to store water from the Columbia River, including the proposed Black Rock reservoir in the lower Yakima Valley and Crab Creek Reservoir in Grant County.

Shannon Dininny
State Approves Lake Roosevelt Drawdown
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 25, 2008

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