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Panel Begins Columbia River Study Next Month

by Associated Press
Capital Press - January 10, 2003

YAKIMA, Wash. -- A national committee has been formed to help Washington state find the best ways to meet the often-competing needs of fish, farmers, utilities and others dependent upon the 1,200-mile-long Columbia River.

"It's a look at existing science by an independent panel," Joye Redfield-Wilder, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology, said.

"The goal of this initiative is to bring everyone to the table, and say, 'Look, is there a way to manage this river where fish needs are met, where we can have new withdrawals from the river and still maintain the capacity for the dams and the hydroelectric needs?'"

The Ecology Department commissioned the $488,000 study, which the committee is slated to complete by the spring of 2004.

The committee will review environmental conditions and management options in the river and try to determine what federally protected salmon need to survive and thrive.

It will also analyze the role that river water use plays in economic productivity in the region.

The study is part of the state's overall plan to better manage the river, which is a source of electricity, transportation, recreation and irrigation from the northeastern to the southwestern corner of the state.

Under the state's Columbia River Regional Initiative, the de3aprtment is trying to develop an integrated management program that allows reliable access to river water while protecting salmon.

"The state has an obligation to meet ... the water needs for people and the water needs for fish," Redfield-Wilder said.

From 1991 to 1997, there was a moratorium on new water withdrawals from the river because of concern about dwindling wild salmon runs.

In 1998, the department adopted new rules ensuring consultation with tribes, local government and fish agencies before approving new water withdrawals.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association challenged the state's process for making water-rights decisions on the river, fearing particularly a federal demand for no net-loss of water.

"There's got to be a better way to manage the river than to rely on piecemeal court proceedings every time water-right decisions are made," Tom Fitzsimmons, Ecology director, said in October.

The dispute was resolved last month with a settlement in which the state promised irrigators a reliable water supply during drought years in exchange for payments to compensate for fish losses.

Also last month, the state reached an agreement with the cities of Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and West Richland, giving them rights to 80,000 gallons of water per minute for municipal growth over the next 50 years.

The Center for Environmental Law & Policy in Seattle, a water policy watchdog group, is challenging that pact, which it contends has no basis in policy, regulations or statute.

The new 13-member panel, officially known as the Committee on Water Resources Management, Instream Flows and Salmon Survival in the Columbia river, meets for the first time Feb. 3-4 in Richland.

The members were appointed by the National Research Council, part of the National Academies, which are four organizations created by Congress to advise the nation on science, engineering and medicine.

Associated Press
Panel Begins Columbia River Study Next Month
Capital Press - January 10, 2003

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