the film
Commentaries and editorials

Irrigators Look for Salmon Savior

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, November 24, 1999

As federal officials in big cities shape the future of Mid-Columbia farms, regional irrigators are searching for a small-town savior - preferably one who can calm troubled waters and help them keep feeding the multitudes.

They gathered Tuesday in Pasco for a daylong revival that combined the evangelism of irrigation with foundational teaching about the sins of bureaucrats and the hope offered by political unity.

But all that was preaching to the choir.

"We are always talking to ourselves," said a frustrated Washington Rep. Gary Chandler, R-Moses Lake. "We are not telling the public what we are doing."

Most speakers seemed to agree that farming suffers a serious public relations problem - that city people in Portland and Seattle have no idea how agribusiness has developed and yet are setting uneducated policies by sheer virtue of their numbers in state legislatures.

"They think agriculture is the enemy," said Porky Thomsen, a Snake River irrigator, during a series of presentations about how irrigators can maintain - and even improve - natural habitat for federally protected fish.

In short, farm leaders determined they need to employ the same tactics of public persuasion that environmentalists have used for years. "Unfortunately, it's not common sense and it's not logic that's going to prevail," said Oregon Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton. "It's a 20-second sound bite."

Some called for paid advertising campaigns to remind urbanites where their food comes from and what farmers do for the environment. Others proposed lobbying Puget Sound newspapers to send editorial writers to Eastern Washington for farm tours.

And still others are trying to push Washington Gov. Gary Locke to champion state water rights against the federal government.

Whatever the method, said Oregon State Sen. David Nelson, R-Pendleton, the message needs to be clear. "You have to capture the hearts and soul of the people that what you are doing is the right thing. You have to get that message out."

They started Tuesday by highlighting how irrigators have created benefits for salmon - and how they might do more in the future if federal agencies are willing to ease up on penalties and give farmers leeway to try new programs without fear.

Even runoff from farmlands could be a boon for fish if it's managed properly, said David Smith, graduate student at the University of Idaho's Aquaculture Institute.

"Irrigated return flows have often been viewed as an environmental liability" because of pollutants and high temperatures, he said. But if they are clean and cold, runoff streams could provide new chinook spawning grounds. "You have habitat where none existed before."

The conference was a step toward galvanizing farmers to united political action. It included Democrats and Republicans from Washington and Oregon promising to fight for state water rights in the coming legislative season.

"The federal government needs to butt out - this is our state," said Washington Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee. "By God, we have run this state to be one the leading states in the nation agriculturally."

To hear farmers talk about it, that economic base is fracturing as the National Marine Fisheries Service writes the water management plan that will shape the region for the next several years.

The flash point is the four Snake River dams above Pasco, which agencies may propose removing to improve fish habitat.

U.S. Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., assured the more than 100 farm leaders that Snake dams won't be removed. "To take them out, you have got to take us out first," said Smith, vice chairman of the subcommittee on power and water.

"I have my hands on the purse strings," assured Gorton, chairman of the Interior appropriations budget subcommittee. He noted that his fellow senators have not been tugging at him to provide dam breaching money despite a string of advertisements in The New York Times that proposed the move.

"We are winning," he said, "but we have not won."

Smith, who once told a Portland crowd he'd chain himself to a dam to prevent its destruction, said he and Gorton sometimes feel like "lonely voices" defending rural America.

"I can't tell you how sick I am of people in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago - some of the dirtiest places on Earth - telling us how to have a good environment in Oregon," he said.

Last week, NMFS released a paper outlining salmon recovery options. To the relief of irrigators, it broadened the issue beyond breaching the Snake River dams.

But other options also will take a toll. If the dams stay, NMFS is almost sure to require habitat reforms on private land near rivers and perhaps try to take water from irrigators to flush fish to the ocean.

Still to be determined is how much state water rights Washington, Oregon and Idaho will allow NMFS to take. Forget the dams, said Darryll Olsen, Kennewick water analyst and conference organizer, "The issue is water."

He added, "What NMFS is proposing is a policy that abrogates state water rights. There is really no other way to say it."

The Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association is trying to get more attention for its water management proposal, which would free up water NMFS is trying to reserve in the rivers and use it for environmental and economic development.

Irrigators also want to see more storage in water-short basins such as the Yakima Valley. Chandler, co-chairman of the House Agriculture and Ecology Committee, said he's expecting a bill during the next legislative session that proposes building a small reservoir near Yakima that could provide benefits for fish and farmers.

That's not the only new reservoir irrigators want built - but they face a tough challenge to convince the public that new reservoirs can be good for the environment. "Off-stream storage is something we have to start fighting for," Chandler said.

Mike Lee
Irrigators Look for Salmon Savior
Tri-City Herald, November 24, 1999

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation