Ecology Must Find Way
We live in a region surrounded by water. Three major rivers come together right in the Tri-Cities. Most of us cross them several times a week.
With all that water flowing past, it seems counterintuitive that there's always a fight when farmers need to draw more water from the rivers.
The state Department of Ecology would tell you it's not that simple, and antiquated water laws support the department's position.
The most recent battle has some interesting twists.
The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association and the state made what farmers thought was an agreement to increase the number of irrigated acres of farm land in the Mid-Columbia.
The deal was part of a landmark water bill approved by the Legislature in 2006, but in the four years since, not a single acre of irrigated land has been added, and it looks as if the two sides are more polarized than ever.
The back story is that there had been a decades-long backlog of water rights applications. That legal dispute appeared to be resolved with the much-touted Columbia River Water Management Act in 2006.
The wide-ranging package provided $200 million to create new water supplies for farms and cities in Central and Eastern Washington.
The legislation is doing some good, without a doubt. The state's focus on helping farmers in the Odessa Aquifer promises real results.
But irrigators association believes the legislation also allows its members to use water saved through conservation efforts to irrigate new ground.
Farmers around here have long practiced water conservation. While there are economic incentives to use less water, there's also the farmer's role as a good steward of the land. Water conservation offers short- and long-term benefits to farmers.
Or does it? If a farmer started conservation practices in the 1970s, he saved some money on his power bill, but that water right has been relinquished unless it was banked in a water trust.
The Department of Ecology says allowing farmers to go back in time and regain water saved by conservation efforts will actually draw more water from the system.
Besides, the state says its hands are tied under irrigation law, which goes by the "use it or lose it" philosophy of water rights.
Maybe, but it isn't rational or equitable to punish farmers for good practices. By making sound farming and good management a detriment to long-term water rights, the law encourages waste. Some irrigators are frustrated enough to consider dropping future conservation efforts.
Derek Sandison, director of the Department of Ecology's Office of Columbia River, says the state wants to find a way to help farmers who've lost water rights through conservation practices.
Perhaps there's a middle path, but there's an even more fundamental disagreement between irrigators and the state. The two sides are at odds over whether cutting water use on irrigated fields even saves water.
Farmers can show that best management practices cut water use by at least 17 percent, probably more.
But the state argues that any irrigation water not needed by crops would return to the river anyway, either as runoff or evaporation. Leaving it in the river in the first place, instead of overwatering, doesn't actually save water, according to the argument.
Irrigators don't buy it. Water that's never pumped from the river provides a clear benefit for fish and downstream users. Extra water poured on the field may never get back to the river or percolate through the basalt for centuries, the farmers say.
For their part, the farmers have proposed a pilot project that would allow a few farmers to use half of the water saved by best conservation practices and spread it to new lands.
The Department of Ecology has proved it can find reasons to reject the proposal.
State officials need to instead begin looking for ways to make it happen. Water reforms shouldn't leave irrigated farmers on the Snake and Columbia rivers high and dry.
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