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Deal to Keep Water in Walla Walla River

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writers
Tri-City Herald, June 16, 2000

A deal to keep the Walla Walla River from drying up during summer irrigation season is being hailed as a landmark agreement that could change water rights across the West.

It acknowledges that taking too much water out of a stream can hurt a protected fish species, conservation groups say. And that could lead to more Northwest water rulings that keep water in streams rather than letting it be diverted for irrigation or development.

"This is the first time to my knowledge that Endangered Species Act enforcement has put water back in the river from entirely private irrigation," said Reed Benson, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon. "This is the first of what may be many actions to keep rivers wet where that (water) is needed for the survival of listed salmon or other fish."

The deal, announced this week but signed June 9, aims to protect Walla Walla fish and shield the valley's irrigators from a federal crackdown after alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act.

The amount of water fish need is one of the big debates in salmon recovery, and it's a contentious one because irrigators and urban developers often want or already use that same water.

But recent endangered species protections are starting to take hold across the Columbia Basin and federal agencies are forcing the issue of instream flows. The topic is especially hot in the Methow Valley in north-central Washington, which faced salmon protection laws head-on last year because some irrigation ditches there cross federal land.

The federal land gave the government an entry into the fray over irrigation practices that it doesn't have in the Walla Walla Basin, where for decades the river has gone dry or nearly dry in the summer as three major valley irrigation districts divert water for about 18,000 acres.

The conservation group American Rivers - one of seven involved in the settlement - listed the Walla Walla as one of the nation's most endangered in the late 1990s.

American Rivers attorney Katherine Ransel in Seattle said the Walla Walla Basin is an example of what's gone wrong across the West with "overallocating rivers to out-of-stream uses." And she said one of the first things to do now is set a goal for how much water should remain in the river, which travels through Southeastern Washington and Northeastern Oregon.

Things are so bad in the Walla Walla that each spring agencies and tribes salvage fish from the shrinking stream by shocking and transporting them to reaches with more water.

It's not clear how many fish have been harmed by low water. "We know that bull trout are there when ... the river dries up," said Michelle Eames, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Spokane. "We don't know how many are killed or injured as a result."

In January, the Fish and Wildlife Service advised Walla Walla irrigators that long-term water conservation plans weren't good enough to protect the bull trout, which were listed as a threatened species in June 1998.

"More immediate action needs to be taken," warned Mark Miller, acting field supervisor for the agency. "Bull trout may be killed or injured by ... withdrawals, diversions and reduced flows."

Also, the National Marine Fisheries Service plans to release specific rules for protecting steelhead next week, a move that will focus more attention on the Walla Walla Basin.

During the last few months of negotiations, irrigators attempted to meet federal goals and avoid civil penalties, which could be as high as $12,000 a day and a ban on irrigation.

Agent Pete Nylander, supervisor of enforcement in Oregon for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the possibility of penalties would emerge again if irrigators failed to keep the bargain. "We're looking for compliance, not penalties," he added.

The settlement calls for irrigators to leave 13 cubic feet per second of water - about 5,800 gallons per minute - in the Walla Walla River near Milton-Freewater. It also imposes screen requirements on irrigation systems to keep out fish, forces districts to monitor fish and water levels and directs irrigators to stop making abrupt changes in river levels than can strand fish.

A news release from the irrigation districts said they were pleased. "We believe that the settlement is a workable result for all parties," said Ron Brown, board member with the Walla Walla River Irrigation District. The other districts involved are Hudson Bay District Improvement Company and Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13.

Virtually everyone involved with the one-year settlement agrees that the 13 cubic feet per second requirement is not enough to prevent harm to federally protected fish. Speculation is that the riverbed leaks so much that it will still go dry in places. "There might not be enough," Eames said. But, she added, "We'll get water in the river for a longer period of time."

All sides seem to want to avoid the verbal and legal hostilities that have marred fish recovery efforts in the Methow.

"This is something we can hold up and say, 'See, everybody can get together on something like this,' " said Jenny Valdivia, at the fish service in Portland. "It's one of those little glimmers of hope."

Even environmentalists are praising the agreement and took the unusual step of holding off on a lawsuit to give irrigators time to negotiate a long-term water management plan.

"It's early on, but they have done all the right things," said WaterWatch's Benson. "I am not saying they did this before they had to, but a lot of people don't fix the roof until it starts to leak, and that's what happened here."

Mike Lee
Deal to Keep Water in Walla Walla River
Tri-City Herald, June 16, 2000

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