'Water Transactions' Programby Barry Espenson
A "water transactions" program intended to address mandates from both the Northwest Power Act and Endangered Species Act began opening doors during fiscal 2003 for water rights holders interested in selling or leasing those rights so that the water can be left in-stream to improve conditions for fish and wildlife.
The Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program completed 34 transactions during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 at a cost of $152,840 in Bonneville Power Administration funding. That funding was matched from a variety of sources to make the total cost about $350,000, according to Andrew Purkey, manager of the program and associate director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The transactions, all on temporary terms such as leases, put 103 cubic feet per second of flow in total back in streams across the basin. That represents 23,323 acre feet of water in all that would have been put to other uses or, in some cases, wasted, Purkey said.
An example, he said, is a transaction on Montana's Poorman Creek. An inefficient irrigation ditch on the creek resulted in the loss of as much as 15 cfs. A conservation project there led by the Trout Unlimited-Montana Water Project has reduced the amount of water lost to seepage by roughly half. And the landowner has agreed to lease the saved water to Trout Unlimited-Montana Water Project to be left in-stream to benefit ESA-listed bull trout.
"They just had to go in and line the ditch," Purkey said of what was a relatively low-cost project that yielded big water savings.
Trout Unlimited-Montana Water Project is one of the 10 entities, including Idaho, Oregon and Washington state water agencies, participating in the program. Prospective transactions are channeled through those entities in response to requests for proposals from the program. The first solicitation for fiscal 2004 calls for proposals by Jan. 20. A total of $4 million in BPA funding is earmarked for the program in 2004 through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program. Purkey, and BPA's Chris Furey, briefed the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee Tuesday on the progress made during the first year of program implementation.
Purkey characterized the first year's activities, for the most part, as getting the process up and running. The program was established in 2002 to implement provisions of the NPCC's newly amended fish and wildlife program and to respond to an action called for in the "Reasonable and Prudent Alternative" of the 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion.
The federal BiOp prescription emphasized experimentation and innovation to better develop processes to restore in-stream flows. It also wanted the program to focus on the habitat used by eight "evolutionarily significant units" of salmon and steelhead that the BiOp said were jeopardized by federal hydrosystem -- the FCRPS -- operations.
The NPCC program called for the creation of efficient mechanisms for funding water transactions that could improve the lot of fish and wildlife across the basin, listed or unlisted.
"We're really focusing on the tributaries," Purkey told the committee. An ever-increasing demand for water has resulted in an overappropriation of water across the West, causing low flow conditions that can often be harmful to fish.
"States have issued permits for more diversions than there is water to divert," Purkey said. The program seeks transactions that involve senior water rights holders that are willing to sell all or part of those rights for in-stream use. Senior water rights mean that those rights-holders have first claim on water, which can be especially crucial in low water years. Purchasing senior rights assures that that water will be left in-stream.
The program aims to bring a balanced approach to what is a very contentious water right arena by respecting private property rights while improving habitat.
"We need to respect that, respect irrigated agriculture," Purkey said. The program must by necessity win over water users, who are very protective of their water rights and often skeptical of efforts to buy those rights even temporarily.
"It's going to take some time," Purkey said of the effort to gain goodwill. The program has set 2004 goals of completing transactions that result in increased in-stream flows of 100-125 cfs, including 75-100 cfs in habitats of listed fish. Purkey said the program would also like to establish some long-term and permanent transactions.
The first year was used in large part to establishing procedures and protocols. In the new year the program will implement "experimental design' to test and evaluate transaction strategies and tools.
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