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Economic Panel Compares Effectiveness of Methods
to Keep More Water In-Stream for Fish

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 11, 2011

Steelhead swim up to 900 miles from the ocean to the headwaters. Anglers can keep only hatchery steelhead, which are marked with a clipped adipose fin, the one behind the dorsal fin. All fish with an adipose fin must be immediately released unharmed. There's no runaway winner, but it appears water transactions such as rights purchases and leases may have an edge in Columbia-Snake river basin efforts to keep more water in-stream for the benefit of salmon and steelhead.

"It kind of looks like water transactions might be more cost efficient" as compared to investments in less wasteful irrigation delivery systems, according to John Duffield, chairman of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Independent Economic Advisory Board.

Duffield on Tuesday previewed for the Council the IEAB's review of "the ways that improved irrigation efficiency, farm-to-stream water transactions, and related agreements are used to increase stream flows to improve fish habitat and promote fish recovery in the Columbia River Basin," according to an Oct. 25 memo from Terry Morlan, director of the Council's Power Planning Division.

The report's executive summary can be found at:

The IEAB has recently received outside reviews of its draft report "Cost-Effectiveness of Improved Irrigation Efficiency and Water Transactions for In-Stream Flows for Fish." Those comments provided by other experts in the fields of irrigation efficiency and water transactions are now being incorporated into the IEAB document. The final draft of the report on the IEAB review is expected to be completed sometime next month, according to Morlan.

The IEAB was established in November 1996. Its aim is to use the members' expertise to helps improve the cost-effectiveness analysis of fish and wildlife recovery measures implemented through the NPCC's Fish and Wildlife Program. The eight-member IEAB is called on to assist with difficult economic issues associated with the Council's program.

Duffield is a research professor at the University of Montana who specializes in environmental and natural resource economics

"Overall the evidence suggests that water transactions projects offer greater potential than irrigation efficiency projects," according to the draft report's executive summary. "Water transactions contracts can be designed to assure conditions that will protect fish whereas irrigation efficiency alone may not be enough to protect fish in dry years."

Duffield said the report cautions that in some cases reduction in water diverted because of irrigation efficiency may be diverted by others downstream such as more-junior water rights holders that are not receiving their full allocation.

"Water transactions generally allow water users to decide how to meet their contractual obligation at least cost. This decision may include irrigation efficiency, crop idling, deficit irrigation, internal water transfers, and other management to minimize net revenue losses," the summary says. "The locations where a water transactions contract may be possible, and where it will correspond to the need for improved fish habitat, appear to be less restricted than in the case of irrigation efficiency projects.

"However, one drawback of water transactions projects should be noted. Water transactions projects generally involve a reduction in crop production with corresponding local economic effects, and this has led to resistance to water transactions projects in small rural communities that are reliant on a healthy farm economy."

The report includes eight case studies involving an examination of the relative cost-effectiveness of irrigation efficiency projects compared to alternative approaches to improve in-stream flow to benefit fish populations. Those case studies include Lemhi, Yakima, Salmon Creek, Upper Grande Ronde, Walla Walla, Deschutes, Hood, and Blackfoot river basins.

The case studies reveal that both irrigation efficiency projects and water transaction projects have been used successfully to achieve an increase in in-stream flow at times and in locations where the fish habitat is impaired.

"Costs for these improvements range widely among the projects sampled; many irrigation efficiency and water transactions projects undertaken in the past decade have achieved these in-stream-flow increases at costs below" $50 per acre foot, the report says. Just which is more economical largely depends on the basin in which the water savings effort is carried out.

The case studies did show that water saving projects funded by the Bonneville Power Administration through the Council's fish and wildlife program are "doing some good," Duffield said.

Central Idaho's Lemhi River basin, as an example, saw salmon runs beginning to collapse in 1960s and 1970s because of degraded habitat. And irrigation needs that blossomed to 37,000 acres by the mid-1990s caused further problems. Most of that irrigation, 80 percent, involved flooding fields and pastures, with the loss of 25 to 30 percent of the water in transit into the ground and via evaporation. Streambeds were often completely dry in late summer, Duffield said.

The number of salmon redds counted in the basin sunk into the single digits in the 1990s.

But from 2004-2011 BPA spent $414,000 on eight pipeline programs to reduce water loss and $2,329,000 on 18 sprinklers in the upper Salmon drainage, which includes the Lemhi. The Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program, also funded by Bonneville, cooperated with Idaho Water Board and Idaho Legislature in creation of Lemhi Water Bank

Water right leases were obtained to assure that the river didn't go dry. And lo and behold, officials saw the counts "go from a very few number of redds to an order of magnitude higher," Duffield said. There were 91 redds counted in Lemhi in 2009 and 89 counted in 2010.

"This is the kind of thing we need to see more of," Washington NPCC member Tom Karier said after hearing Duffield's presentation. The Lemhi example "is a great confirmation that that kind of program works."

Economic Panel Compares Effectiveness of Methods to Keep More Water In-Stream for Fish
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 11, 2011

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