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Washington Moves Forward on Draft Water Withdrawal Plan

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 14, 2004

Washington officials floated ideas at public meetings in eastern Washington the end of April outlining what they think is needed to meet future water supply needs in the mid-Columbia and Snake rivers. The discussion draft shared with the public by the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) and the office of Washington Governor Gary Locke represents the next step in the state's Columbia River Initiative, a formal attempt to address water withdrawal issues in eastern Washington. A report by the National Research Council of the National Academies released in March provided general guidelines for such a plan. The plan is preliminary and is in discussion draft form, according to DOE's Joye Redfield-Wilder, but at this point it outlines how the state could provide more water for users, including irrigators and municipalities, while also protecting salmon and steelhead. The state will release a final draft for review in July. "The objective of this process is to meet future water needs and to not adversely affect fish runs," Wilder said. Those needs include converting approximately 300 interruptible water rights to more reliable rights, providing water for pending water withdrawal applications and meeting water needs due to growth, predicted 20 percent over the next 20 years. Over the next 20 years, 500,000 to 750,000 acre-feet of water would be needed each year during the six-month irrigation season. According to the discussion draft, the state wants to give fish about one-third of this new water to reduce their risks. In essence, that is putting one bucket of water into the river for every two buckets withdrawn for other uses. Both Wilder and Bill Tweit, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that the 170-page National Academies report, titled "Managing the Columbia River: Instream Flows, Water Withdrawals, and Salmon Survival," offered little detailed help for managing water in the mid-Columbia River. "Our initial hope was that the science review would say if you take out this much water, then you need to do this type of mitigation," Wilder said. Instead, she said, the science review gave a general response: the river is taxed and it won't get better. Tweit told the Implementation Team last week that "some folks expected blinding insights from the report, but itís not surprising that's not what happened." He added that some of the findings of the report are obvious. Those include that fish populations are in poor shape, so the risks are high, that climate change will have an impact on water supplies in the future, that whatever plan the state adopts should look at cumulative impacts, and that July and August are threshold months when fish are at greatest risk. The bottom line is that the state is acutely aware that there has to be more water available in the basin, especially during summer months, Tweit said. "That's when we can expect to see the effects of water withdrawals," Tweit said. "In a way, they were inviting us to consider July and August as overappropriated (water) months already. It's clear that risks to fish are highest during those months." The National Academies report was requested by the Washington State Department of Ecology, which asked for an evaluation of the effects of additional water withdrawals of approximately 250,000 acre-feet to 1.3 million acre-feet per year, roughly the volume sought in currently 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. Among the report's findings are that if the maximum amount of prospective new water withdrawals came about, about 2,600 acre-feet would be drawn off in January, about 1 percent of the Columbia's flow at that time of year. But if 234,000 acre-feet are drawn off in July, a high consumption month for irrigators, that would represent 6.8 to 8.6 percent of mean Columbia River flows for that time of year. That would be 16.6 to 21 percent of the minimum historic Columbia River flow in July. At the same time that the National Academies report was being developed, Washington also commissioned an economic study which showed that the costs of implementing a water plan has a public economic benefit. "There clearly is a lot of value in water," Tweit said. "And, there's also a lot of demand. Both are sufficiently large that we should spend the time to get it right. Clearly this is a high value activity." Among other proposals in the discussion draft to find more water for the region are additional water storage, which could mean building new reservoirs, acquisition of existing water rights, and the creation of a water bank, which would allow water users to sell their water rights or conserve water and sell back a portion of their water rights to the bank, which could be drawn on in critical times. In addition, the discussion draft is contemplating metering all water withdrawals in the region, something not currently being done. "Through water banking, we may be able to set aside a reserve amount of water for critical periods," Wilder said. She said some mechanisms exist for water banking, but that the concept would require a major program to be successful. The National Academies report also recommended a more regional effort by forming a Regional Forum on water issues, but that currently isn't in the plan, Tweit said. This is a huge process for Washington already, Tweit said, and going into a regional plan would be even more difficult. The plan is on a fast track and is getting plenty of attention from the Governor's office, showing how important it is to the state, Tweit said. DOE will refine the plan, issue a draft rule July 21 and hold public hearings Aug. 24 - Sept. 11 with hearings in each county impacted by the plan. A final rule is expected by early December, with an effective date in January. Related Sites:
Washington Department of Ecology:
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:
Columbia River Initiative:

Mike O'Bryant
Washington Moves Forward on Draft Water Withdrawal Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 14, 2004

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