Locke Proposes New Plan
by Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
KENNEWICK, Wash. -- In what is likely one of his last acts before leaving office, Gov. Gary Locke announced a new plan for managing the Columbia River, seeking to provide more water for farmers and cities in Eastern Washington while protecting fish and wildlife.
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 side fights for sufficient water for threatened fish.
Locke made finding a solution a priority in his second term, working to resolve hundreds of water-rights applications and reduce litigation on the issue. The new plan, released during his last weeks in office, seeks to achieve that goal, though it was unclear if the Legislature or his successor would act on it.
Locke's Columbia River Initiative aims to secure an additional 728,000 acre-feet of water to meet the region's needs over the next 20 years and provide a more reliable supply of water during droughts.
Two-thirds of the additional water would go to farmers, irrigation and other uses, and one-third would remain in the river to preserve adequate river flows and protect fish and wildlife, under the plan.
The proposal seeks $79 million in new state funding to purchase water, research water storage and develop water-conservation measures. It would require approval by the Legislature, where many proposed water-policy changes have died in recent years.
Locke urged state lawmakers and the next governor to support the initiative, saying it would be "the single largest economic development initiative in Eastern Washington in decades."
"This is an unprecedented level of initiative by the state to address water usage," he said, adding that the key to the proposal is the support of involved stakeholders. "When you have the support of so many irrigation districts and the federal agencies and the tribes, that represents tremendous support."
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and three Columbia River basin irrigation districts signed a memorandum of agreement on the plan Friday. The National Marine Fisheries Service also supports the plan.
Locke said he expected the Colville Confederated Tribes to sign the agreement in the coming weeks.
A few details still needed to be worked out, including ensuring that fish habitat in Lake Roosevelt is protected and that tribes receive their share of power from Grand Coulee Dam, tribal chairman Joe Pakootas said. But he said he expected an agreement soon.
The tribes' support is critical for the proposal, which calls for drawing down Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia River by up to an additional 1 foot each fall. That would provide 137,000 acre-feet of the 728,000 acre-feet of water sought under the plan.
The rest would be secured through agreements with the Bonneville Power Administration and Canada under a Columbia River treaty, and by increasing storage and conservation.
Locke's proposal would allow the state to fulfill about 300 pending water-rights applications for groundwater and surface water near the river. That, in turn, could ease the gridlock involving more than 3,000 applications for water from the river's many tributaries throughout Eastern Washington.
Under the plan, water users who were issued interruptible water rights in the 1980s would be allowed to apply for uninterruptible rights - a key issue for water users whose rights are reduced or shut off during drought years.
Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences cautioned the state against allowing new withdrawals from the river during low water flows. Meanwhile, a report from the University of Washington predicted new withdrawals could boost economic growth in the region.
Rob Masonis, senior director of the Northwest region for the American Rivers conservation group, commended the governor and the state for taking an "innovative approach to managing water in the Columbia River."
But he said the proposal must be strengthened to ensure water is put back into the river to offset future withdrawals. In the short-term, Masonis said, the state must focus more on buying water rights from current users, because new storage facilities will take many years and dollars to build.
"There are some people who would try to characterize this as a choice between people and salmon, and I think that is a false choice," he said. "This is really a choice between a water management system that is archaic and broken, and an innovative approach that would meet the competing demands for Columbia River water."
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