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Locke Acts to Ease Drought Effects

by Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, March 15, 2001

ALDER LAKE -- Gov. Gary Locke signed a historic drought declaration Wednesday, deploying emergency measures aimed at easing pain among legions of Washington farmers.

Even so, it's clear many agricultural, recreational and other water users will bathe only in a sea of frustration this summer.

Locke, standing at the deep end of a dried-up swimming area, outlined a strategy heavy on stimulating sharing of what water is available and largely void of interest in seeking new resources.

There will be few, if any, emergency wells approved and no guarantee instream flows in the Columbia River will be reduced to keep farmers irrigating.

"This drought is real, and the effects are real," said Locke, calling for conservation as he stood against the backdrop of a muddy stump farm normally blanketed with water. "No water, no electricity. No water, no swimming. No water, no fishing. Use it wisely. Don't waste it."

The onset of the worst drought in at least a quarter-century is perhaps nowhere more visible than at Alder Lake in Pierce County.

The reservoir is so dry that remnants of the old Alder town site, submerged when a nearby dam was completed in 1944, has reappeared. A railroad trestle sits exposed at one end of town and a few building foundations are visible at the other with various rusted artifacts strewn throughout.

So, it was no surprise when Locke showed up amid snow-starved hills and rainless skies to sign his declaration, largely confirming what the region has been fearing for months.

"It validates it as much as anything," said Dick Erickson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District in Othello. "And it says it makes sense to maybe look at some unusual ... steps."

Many of those steps were announced Wednesday.

For instance, the state Department of Ecology is nearly doubling employees to process temporary water-rights transfers, which are expected to be one of the primary ways water is "moved" this summer to meet the most dire needs. Processing time for transfers is decreased to 15 days, and reviews won't include environmental investigations or public notice.

"What we are really looking for is for farmers to reach out to other farmers to find out if they have more water than they actually need," said Mary Getchell, Ecology Department spokeswoman.

But, she added, "This is a dire situation, and it means some folks will not be able to irrigate."

The state Department of Agriculture and the state Conservation Commission plan to help match farmers who need water with farmers who want to sell it. Tom Myrum, director of Washington State Water Resources Association, expects to see the water market develop quickly.

"The benefit will be in loosening up some of the restrictions on transfers," he said.

Already, the Roza Irrigation District has made a public bid to buy water. The Kittitas Reclamation District, the Valley's other main district with junior rights, is looking to do the same.

Also, the state will open up a $5.1 million reserve fund to buy or lease water to leave in rivers and streams. Locke said he'd lobby the Legislature to boost that amount. Other officials assured that the state would not compete with districts for water.

Still, there will be plenty of people chasing whatever water is put on the market. "When everybody is thirsty, they are all looking for something to drink," said Jack Carpenter, Kittitas district manager.

Also, state agents will target enforcement of illegal water use, and they will use some of the drought fund to help irrigation and utility systems conserve water.

But the state isn't planning to authorize use of about 120 emergency wells drilled in the Yakima Valley during the 1994 drought -- something irrigators were hoping would happen.

"Those were temporary wells for 1994," Getchell said. "Certainly any water user in the state may apply for an emergency well permit (for this year), but there is simply no additional water to allocate in many parts of the state."

The largest-scale effects of the drought might be in the Yakima Valley, where two major irrigation districts covering 130,000 acres could virtually be dried up because they have rights junior to others. Farmers in the Upper Yakima Valley likely will get no more than one cutting of hay, and orchards in the Lower Valley could die of thirst.

Yakima Valley officials are planning a regional water forum Friday in an attempt to figure out if anything can be done to keep farmers afloat. There's no consensus yet about what that might be, which is why the meeting was called, said Jim Milton, director of the Tri-County Water Resource Agency.

Jim Waldo, the governor's point man on water, will moderate a discussion about the possibility of a joint plan. Directors from the state departments of Agriculture and Ecology are expected to attend, along with the acting area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

There's a sense that if anything is going to happen, it's going to be now at the front end of irrigation season. "What we're hoping to do ... is come up with what that might be," Milton said. "We need to focus on the short-term."

The meeting is open to the public. It runs from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the West Coast Gateway Motel, 9 N. Ninth St., Yakima.

In Olympia, Republicans welcomed Locke's declaration and quickly pushed for more aggressive measures. They want Locke to reduce minimum-flow demands in the Columbia, something the governor said he will consider next week. If he doesn't approve changes, about 200 irrigators likely will be told to shut off their pumps in July so the river will carry a bit more water.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, set a small paper cup next to an empty 5-gallon water jug to illustrate how much water junior water right holders need to grow their crops.

Taking the water "won't make a bit of difference" to the Columbia River, he said.

Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, who several times this week has questioned using water to nourish the grass and power the lights at Seattle's Safeco Field, said the pain should be spread to more than just growers.

"Are we going to use that water for food or for fun?" he asked.

Chris Mulick & Mike Lee
Locke Acts to Ease Drought Effects
Tri-City Herald, March 15, 2001

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