the film
Commentaries and editorials

Economic, Environmental Future
Tied to Columbia River

by Linda Hoffman, Director, Washington Department of Ecology
Tri-City Herald, March 6, 2004

When the governor proposed the Columbia River Initiative in 2002, he recognized the intrinsic values the Columbia River brings to our state.

The river provides the state with a stable and growing economy. The river waters crops that are sent around the world and generates power that lights up far-away cities. It also is a precious natural resource, supporting salmon, recreation and tourism up and down its corridor.

Given all of these uses and values, it's not surprising that the future of the Columbia River has come under scrutiny. Threats to the survival of salmon, regional power outages, declining water quality and economic downturns have all played out along the river's banks.

In light of these issues, Gov. Gary Locke recognized that we need a better way - legally, scientifically and politically - to manage this significant freshwater resource.

He charged the Department of Ecology with developing a new rule governing water-use decisions for the Columbia River - a rule to be created in an open and public process that will include scientific evaluation, economic analysis and involvement from citizens throughout the region. He asked us to be creative, to find a way for our economy to co-exist with our environment.

History says this task won't be easily accomplished. The story of the West is littered with tales of water wars.

Sometimes it seems all we've been doing is fighting: Farmers, scientists, environmentalists, cities and towns, tribes and state and federal governments.

The result has been a mish-mash of court decisions - lots of money being spent and no sound policy or progress on how future water allocations might be made.

We all are familiar with the problems. But how do we come up with solutions? Hopefully, by bringing people together.

Let me provide some background.

Soon after endangered species listings were announced in 1990, the state suspended issuing rights for new withdrawals from the Columbia River, realizing new analysis was needed.

As a result, dozens of requests for water were put on hold. In 1998, the moratorium was lifted and an interim rule adopted to guide the state on making new water-right decisions until more was learned about fish and stream-flow requirements.

Commonly known as the "consultation rule," it calls for Ecology to confer with pertinent cities, counties, tribes and state and federal agencies before allocating more water from the Columbia River. The rule has been challenged on a number of fronts and, as one judge put it, has proved to be "unworkable."

It is important to note Ecology is duty-bound to protect fisheries, complying with both federal laws and our own state laws. Central to this obligation is the question: Will any water withdrawal impair the recovery and survivability of endangered fisheries?

So what information should we rely on to answer this question? Should we look only at information from those who have a stake in the outcome? Or should we allow independent, unbiased experts to guide us in making our decisions?

To achieve a thorough, independent scientific analysis, we've asked the National Academy of Sciences to prepare a report on the risks new water withdrawals might pose for fish. And if there are risks, how can we manage them. The science review, due in March, will tell us to what extent more land might be irrigated using Columbia River water and what we might do to make up for (mitigate) that water use.

We have also commissioned an economic analysis of Columbia River water use. Natural resource economists from the University of Washington have gathered data on what new water allocations might mean to the region's economy over a 20-year period. Both reports - the National Academy of Sciences study and the economic study - will be crucial to how we fashion a new management plan.

In addition to seeking recommendations from economists and scientists, we're asking for advice from those who manage the river on a day-to-day basis: the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the PUDs and Bonneville Power Administration, as well as those who operate hydro-power dams. We're also looking for guidance from tribes, cities and towns, those who manage and use irrigation water in the basin, environmental groups and our neighbors in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Canada.

We have a unique opportunity to craft a workable management plan - one that does not result in court battles and inconsistent policy.

This summer, the whole process will culminate when a formal rule proposal will be filed. Hearings will be held to collect formal comments on the draft rule. By November, a new rule should be in place.

One thing is sure: managing water as usual won't be sufficient to meet the governor's charge.

Water conservation will need to be aggressively explored. Financial contributions for mitigation may need to be considered, and we will need to ask and answer hard questions.

I hope you'll join me in supporting this initiative, so that future generations will say we did the right thing and that we were innovative, creative and inclusive along the way.

Related Sites:
Columbia River Initiative is available online at programs/wr/cri/crihome.html.

Linda Hoffman, Director, Washington Department of Ecology
Economic, Environmental Future Tied to Columbia River
Tri-City Herald, March 6, 2004

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