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Locke Launches New 'Columbia River Regional Initiative'

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 5, 2001

Gov. Gary Locke on Monday launched a "sweeping new Columbia River Regional Initiative" he says is aimed at improving Columbia and Snake river water management for the benefit of fish and humans.

"This regional initiative will be a constructive way to resolve conflict over water use in the Columbia and Snake rivers," Locke said. The governor said the goal of the process is to develop a strategy to meet the needs of a growing population and a sound economy while protecting the needs of fish and healthy watersheds.

"There are hundreds of pending applications for new water rights from the river, and there is little agreement on the stream flows needed to support salmon," said Locke in a Sept. 28 letter to "Columbia River water interests."

"It is time to make progress on these issues," Locke said. "The new water management program I'm writing about today will define and codify how the state performs its specific roles of permitting the use of water and setting stream flows for fish for the Columbia and Snake Rivers."

"As part of this initiative, the state will secure an independent review of the knowledge of fish survival and hydrology in the Columbia and Snake rivers from a panel of regional scientists," Locke wrote.

Locke's letter said the DOE will continue to process those pending applications while the initiative is at work. Any new permits issued will require efficient use of water and accommodations for salmon and other fish.

Initially the program is designed to protect new and existing water uses while maintaining a water level in the rivers that supports the needs of fish, according to a Monday press release from Locke's office. The process also will result in a schedule of activities designed to increase water reliability for existing uses and water availability for new uses.

A national science team will conduct an independent scientific review of existing knowledge about hydrology and fish. A regional panel of scientists also will participate in the independent review process.

A group of people with various interests in the use of water from these rivers will be invited to study the scientific reviews and participate in facilitated negotiations. The group will represent irrigators, fishing organizations, recreational users, hydropower producers, environmentalists, transportation (navigation) and city and state governments.

The governor also will invite federal agencies, other Northwest states and tribal governments to participate in this initiative. Locke asked Tom Fitzsimmons, DOE director, to lead the effort.

The governor expects the scientific reviews, negotiations and schedule of activities to be completed by December 2002.

The state and its Department of Ecology has been pulled to and fro in recent months and years by those for and against additional water withdrawals from the Columbia-Snake system.

At least one major player -- one that provided much of the impetus for Locke's initiative -- will not embrace the process.

"There's no desire to participate in this initiative," said Darryll Olsen, a consultant and representative to the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. The membership of the association, and its "sister" organization, the Eastern Oregon Irrigators Association, deliver water to some 300,000 of the 1.5 million irrigated acres in the Columbia-Snake system, Olsen said.

"The (CSRIA) board said they are going to continue litigating," Olsen said. The association will reinstate a lawsuit against the state to force the release of new unconditioned water rights from the Columbia. It argues that the state has violated due process by not issuing new water rights and has ignored state statutes that say state water rights must be protected above requests from federal agencies. Olsen said the DOE has improperly embraced a National Marine Fisheries Service "no net withdrawals" policy.

The association had reached a settlement agreement with the state last February. Among the terms, Olsen said, was that the state issue "real" water rights, prepare an interim rule for processing water rights and launch the river management review.

"The bottom line is that they did not issue clean water rights," Olsen said. "The stay is going to be revoked."

"They don't want to issue any more water rights. It's their own internal politics," Olsen said of the DOE.

He said the initiative is an unneeded. At least 70 percent of the issues the process will address, including flow targets, could be better dealt with through the Northwest Power Planning Council's ongoing mainstem amendment process, Olsen said. The remainder could be taken care of through the DOE's report of examination process, in which the biological pros and cons of water right requests are analyzed.

A formal petition for rulemaking asking for a cap to all future Columbia and Snake River water withdrawals in Washington was filed last year by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy.

The original petition asked the DOE to close the Columbia and Snake Rivers to any further water appropriations, based on biological opinions by NMFS. According to CELP, Columbia salmon restoration efforts are now being jeopardized by poor water flows in the Columbia. CELP said an estimated 40 percent of historic flows in the Columbia are now being diverted, mostly for agriculture.

The rule-making petition was withdrawn, the group said in a mid-winter press release, based on Locke's expressed commitment to water management initiative.

Gov. Locke's budget asked for $2.4 million for this initiative including funds for the facilitation contract, the science review, staffing for the negotiations, staffing for permit processing, but the 2001 Legislature did not include the funding in its biennial budget.

Since the success of the regional initiative is linked to the success of the 2002 water legislation, The DOE and governor's office are proposing to fund part of the initiative from existing funds and to seek a supplemental budget request to complete the work in fiscal year 2003.

The preliminary budget calls for about $370,000 in fiscal year 2002 spending and $510,000 in 2003.

FY 2002:
Facilitation -- $100,000
Science review -- $180,000
DOE staffing -- 90,000

FY 2003:
Facilitation -- $150,000
Science review -- $120,000
Permit processing -- $180,000
Ecology staffing -- 60,000

Barry Espenson
Locke Launches New 'Columbia River Regional Initiative'
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 5, 2001

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