by Mary Hopkin
The Columbia River was the backdrop Friday as Gov. Chris Gregoire announced state funding for two new water supply projects in the Tri-Cities and a landmark agreement that could lead to new state water permits for the first time in 30 years.
"Nowhere is water more essential to the environmental and economic welfare of a region than here," Gregoire told a group of Tri-City leaders gathered poolside at the Clover Island Inn for the news conference.
The state has earmarked $15 million for Kennewick Irrigation District's pump exchange project, which will allow the district to exchange a portion of its Yakima River water allotment Columbia River water. Through conservation of the Yakima River water, the district will save enough water to irrigate agricultural land on Red Mountain.
The $15 million will come down the road, but the district is getting $95,000 now to study the most efficient way to bring water from the Columbia to KID users.
The district's existing water right allows it to pump water from the Yakima River at Prosser and divert it into its canals at the Chandler pumping station. So new infrastructure would have to be built to carry Columbia River water to KID canals.
The cost of getting the water out of the Columbia to KID users hasn't been figured. KID will use grant funds to hire a consultant to look at pumping and delivery options.
"This is one of my favorite projects," said Jay Manning, director of the state's Department of Ecology.
That's because the plan leaves more water in the drought-susceptible Yakima River, which biologists say would be better for the river's fish and also allow KID to irrigate parts of Red Mountain. The infrastructure to irrigate Red Mountain would be paid for by its water users.
Gregoire said the state also is giving $1 million to the city of Kennewick to build an underground basalt well in the Southridge area to collect storm water in the winter for use during the summer.
One-third of the water collected would be returned to the Columbia during the summer to increase flows and the rest would be available to the city as potable water.
"We need a redundant water source," said Bob Hammond, Kennewick city manager. "We're not only excited about how this well will help us, but also the benefits it has for the rest of the state."
The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association received something more valuable than money. State ecology officials signed an agreement with the association Friday before the news conference that will provide new water to users in exchange for conservation.
It was a landmark for agriculture water users, who have seen no new state water permits for 30 years.
Gregoire said coming to the agreement has been a long, hard road of negotiation, but it shows farmers, legislators and officials can set aside differences and work together.
The agreement will provide permits to allow irrigators to obtain extra water in dry years and stipulates irrigators will work closely on projects to develop more efficient ways to use water.
"This is a monumental event," said Don Odegard, president of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. It has the potential, through conservation, to add 20,000 acres of irrigated agriculture.
Odegard said association leaders have worked hard with state officials for the last year and a half on the agreement, which lays out the framework irrigators must follow to obtain new water -- and conservation is the key.
Odegard said he hopes the agreement will provide much-needed water for agriculture.
"This is a nice vehicle, it's shiny and new, but we have to operate it the way it was designed for it to work," he said.
Gregoire said the projects were made possible through a bipartisan effort that made $200 million available to develop new water supplies from the Columbia River to benefit agriculture, communities and fish.
"These projects will help protect an agriculture economy that generates $3.1 billion every year for the region," she said. "They will provide water that's absolutely essential for growth and development. These projects also ensure that we will have more water in the river for our endangered salmon during the driest months."
Friday afternoon, Gregoire and Manning visited Mercer Estates winery in Prosser, where she toured the new winery spearheaded by Mike Hogue and Bud Mercer and their families. She chatted with former Prosser Mayor Wayne Hogue and about a dozen winery owners and winemakers while describing efforts to bring new water to the region.
Gregoire also said the state has tripled its investment in tourism, which will provide great benefits to the wine industry.
"One of main things we are promoting is the wine industry," said Gregoire. "It's one of the most fun industries in the state."
The Prosser winery owners, many of whom are on the board of directors for the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center, took the opportunity as a rare, intimate chance to lobby for the center, which still is in the planning and fundraising stages.
The center would promote not only the winery industry, but agriculture throughout the Yakima Valley.
The Prosser winery owners, many of whom have farmed in the area for decades, didn't beat around the bush when Gregoire asked how she could help the project move along.
"All we really need is money," said Dick Olsen, co-owner of Olsen Estates.
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