Study: State Must be Flexible
by Associated Press
Diverting water from Columbia River shouldn't be done at peril to salmon
YAKIMA -- The state of Washington should issue additional permits to divert water from the Columbia River only if those withdrawals can be stopped when low water flows imperil threatened salmon, a new study released Wednesday said.
The study by the National Academy of Sciences could make it more difficult to allow more farmers to access water to grow crops. Environmental groups praised the results, while some irrigators argued the findings failed to provide any new information.
The state Ecology Department commissioned the $488,000 study as part of an overall plan to establish new rules for future water rights and to better manage the river, which is a source of electricity, transportation, recreation and irrigation from the northeastern to the southwestern corners of the state.
The entire Columbia River basin touches upon seven states, the Canadian province of British Columbia and several Indian reservations.
"Whether or not to issue additional permits is a decision to be made by the public and policy-makers, but if the withdrawals are allowed, there should be enough flexibility to halt them if river conditions become too severe for the salmon," said Ernest Smerdon, chairman of the committee that wrote the report and retired vice provost and dean of the University of Arizona's College of Engineering and Mines.
The panel also said all Columbia River basin entities involved in deciding water rights cases should cooperate and discuss the possible effects before deciding on water diversions.
Ecology Director Linda Hoffman said the department would review the study in the coming weeks.
"The findings and recommendations clearly illustrate how complicated this issue is, and how challenging it will be to reach solutions," Hoffman said in a statement. "We remain committed to developing and implementing a scientifically based water management program that provides for multiple needs into the future."
The state asked the committee of 13 experts to evaluate the effects of additional water withdrawals of about 250,000 acre-feet to 1.3 million acre-feet per year, which is about the volume of water sought in pending applications for additional water withdrawals.
An acre-foot is the quantity of irrigation water that would cover an acre to a depth of one foot -- equal to 325,851 gallons.
Key to additional water withdrawals is the potential impact on threatened salmon. During the 20th century, salmon in the Columbia River dwindled from around 16 million per year to only 1 million per year, though their numbers have rebounded slightly in recent years, the committee said.
The panel recommended against a proposal to convert current water rights to uninterruptible status, which would allow a farmer to give up rights to a certain volume of water in exchange for a guaranteed minimum level of water every year.
Such an approach would reduce flexibility in times of low water flows or high water temperatures when fish are most at risk, the committee said.
However, the state and other Columbia River basin stakeholders should continue to explore prospects for water rights transfers and other market-based programs as alternatives, the committee said.
Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director for American Rivers, called the findings "significant."
"It's the first time we've had an objective look at how much water needs to be in the Columbia River to protect salmon and steelhead and meet water quality standards and have a healthy river," he said. "It signals the need to change the status quo, that we have to stop looking at the incremental impacts of each water rights application and look at the big picture."
The National Wildlife Federation and Center for Environmental Law and Policy also praised the study, as did commercial fisherman.
"This report underscores that we're now at the point where for every job we gain taking water out of the river, we lose just as many jobs elsewhere in the fishing industry," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
A group representing irrigators complained the report failed to measure the cumulative effects of water withdrawals, thereby providing no new information.
"They believe there's some risk, but they didn't measure," said Darryll Olsen, board member of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association in Kennewick. "Our position hasn't changed. We're saying people who enter into a best management practices program should receive uninterruptible water rights."
Dean Boyer, director of public relations for the Washington Farm Bureau, said he remained hopeful the study might bring the state closer to ending a logjam of applications.
About 90 outstanding surface water applications are pending, as well as about 200 groundwater applications that could be affected by new rules.
The study did not recommend that no more water be allocated, just that if it is, those rights should be interruptible, Boyer said.
"We will be hopeful this will result in additional water rights being issued for agriculture from the Columbia River," he said.
From 1991 to 1997, there was a moratorium on new water withdrawals from the river in Washington state because of concern about dwindling wild salmon runs.
In 1998, the Ecology Department adopted new rules ensuring consultation with tribes, local governments and fish agencies before approving new water withdrawals. The rules have been challenged on several fronts, and the Ecology Department has been awaiting results of this study before ruling on applications.
Under the state's Columbia River Initiative, the department is trying to develop a program that allows reliable access to river water while protecting salmon.
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