After Years of Waiting, Water may Finally Flow
by K.C. Mehaffey
Wenatchee World, June 10, 2008
BREWSTER - By next spring, the state Department of Ecology hopes to begin issuing new water rights from the Columbia River for the first time since the early 1990s.
A plan that draws down Lake Roosevelt by 1 foot will provide more water downstream for fish, for Odessa irrigators and for cities and industries that have been waiting for more than a decade to grow.
This leg of the Columbia River Initiative offers the first large-scale water to be made available in Eastern Washington in more than 30 years, and at least some municipalities and industries in North Central Washington are lined up to get it.
The agency is taking comments on its plan until June 30 and will host open houses in Colville and Coulee Dam next week.
About one-third of the Lake Roosevelt water is earmarked for cities and industries - 25,000 acre-feet each year. State officials say it's enough water to serve 75,000 new homes using 300 gallons a day.
"We think it's a very big deal. It's the biggest chunk of water that's been made available in Eastern Washington in a very long time," said Derek Sandison, regional director for the state Department of Ecology in Yakima. It could be enough to fulfill the needs of many of the 128 municipal and industrial users with pending water rights applications within one mile of the Columbia River, he said.
But the excitement among some of those who stand to benefit isn't exactly overwhelming.
"We'd like to hope, but it's not something we're going to hold our breath on," said Lee Webster, mayor of Brewster, whose town applied for an additional 650 acre- feet of water 15 years ago - and is still waiting.
Webster said there have been positive signs from the state that new water rights will actually come through this time. Still, he's reluctant to plan for it. "My understanding is that it's been long enough for us to get our water. But I will be amazed if and when that happens," he said.
Webster said Brewster hasn't been at a standstill since applying for the new water. There has been some residential growth, using water saved through conservation. But industries interested in locating in the town have stopped asking, he said, likely giving up on the possibility of getting new water rights from the state.
He said the new water, if it comes through, means one thing: "Possibilities. That's the big thing. We just want the opportunity."
In neighboring Bridgeport, Mayor Steve Jenkins said his town, too, applied for new water rights. It's been fighting with the state Department of Ecology for 17 years on how many rights it actually has. In case it loses that battle, it's asked for new rights, Jenkins said.
"Ecology is, for the first time in years, really trying to help us. But you can only go so far with the law. And we've been at this too many years to think it's going to happen," he said.
"I think we're cautiously optimistic," Jenkins said of the prospect of getting new water rights. "I don't know if the city is going to get everything we claim we own. But we're hopeful we'll be eligible for new water if we don't," he said. The impact on his town, he said, would be "huge."
Greg Brizendine, manager of the East Wenatchee Water District, said he didn't realize the district might be up for new water rights under the Lake Roosevelt drawdown. The district provides domestic water for the East Wenatchee area, and applied for about 1,612 acre-feet - or 1,000 gallons a minute - of new water about 10 years ago, he said.
But with no action from the state, the district joined a regional supply group with the city of Wenatchee and the Chelan County PUD to make sure its water needs were met, Brizendine said.
He said they now hold rights in common at Rocky Reach. The group, he said, would be glad to accept the additional water rights. "It'll save us from purchasing additional water rights from an old irrigation right, or whatever we might get," he said.
Sandison said about two-thirds of the cities and industries waiting for new rights should be able to get one. The trick will be determining who gets them.
Under standard water law, whoever applied first would be first in line to get them, he said. But under this proposal, Ecology could use a number of factors in deciding who gets the new water.
He said the agency hopes to split the new water among different regions along the Columbia River so one area doesn't benefit more than others. The agency could also decide to issue new water rights based on those with the greater needs. For example, cities with building moratoriums due to limited water could be first in line, he said. "I think there's a commitment to make sure we get this water spread equally," Sandison said.
Irrigators stand to benefit, too
Under Ecology's proposal, about one-third of the new water rights would only go to cities and industries currently in line for new rights. Another third - or 30,000 acre-feet - will go to irrigators in the Odessa area. That water will be used to refill a groundwater aquifer that irrigates about 10,000 acres east of Moses Lake. Farmers there drilled wells thinking more water would be available, and it caused groundwater levels to drop dramatically.
But the plan also makes extra water available in drought years, both for fish and for water users who are asked to shut off their pumps and check in weekly when the water level at The Dalles Dam drops below 60 million acre-feet on March 1.
Darryll Olsen, principal consultant for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators, said the proposal is a significant contribution toward resolving the interruptible water rights issue.
He said it's being done in conjunction with the conversion of interruptible rights - a kind of voluntary adjudication - to show who's using how much water from the Columbia River, which will help get everyone dependable water.
Irrigators with rights on the Columbia River rarely face shut-off orders, but when they do, it can devastate crops, he said. The last time these rights were interrupted was 2001, Ecology officials said.
Don Odegard, president of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators, said he met with Gov. Chris Gregoire and Ecology Director Jay Manning, and is confident they recognize the importance of water rights to farmers.
"The bottom line is, in a drought year, there is no legal right to the water. We do have to do something. (Farmers) need the peace and comfort to know they can put crops in," he said.
The state appears ready to resolve the problem, he said. "The takeaway I got was very favorable and friendly in terms of taking care of the issue" of interruptible rights.
Jim Harris, regional director for Washington State Parks, said his agency favors the Lake Roosevelt proposal mostly because it could prevent drawing down of other reservoirs - such as Banks Lake and the Potholes, where lower water levels have a much more profound impact on recreation.
One state park in this region also stands to gain by resolving the interruptible water rights issue, he noted.
The rights from the Columbia River that keep lawns green at Daroga State Park are interruptible, and were interrupted in 2001, Harris said. He said there were weeks when the park couldn't irrigate, and the lawns turned brown. He said fortunately the grass didn't completely die, which would have required replanting.
The largest impacts from the plan will occur on Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir on the Columbia River formed by Grand Coulee Dam.
Stevens County Commissioner Merrill Ott, who sits on the Columbia River Program's policy advisory group, said the draw-down of Lake Roosevelt should not be a big concern as long as fishermen, campers and other people who recreate in the area keep coming.
Proponents point out that the proposed 1-foot drop, or 1.8-foot drop in drought years, is only a fraction of the lake's natural fluctuation, from low early spring levels to high post-runoff levels.
He said a lot of work will be done to monitor the impacts. Some problems, such as docking, can be easily remedied. The lake already has a range that differs by 80 feet in different times of the year, he said, so a 1- to 2-foot drop shouldn't be a serious problem.
He added, "Because it has such a high recreational value, we don't want to see those opportunities damaged. At the same time, we realize the downstream needs."
Five counties and several small towns bordering Lake Roosevelt will get about $2 million to take care of any problems, such as ineffective docks, that arise.
In addition, two American Indian tribes whose reservations border the lake will be compensated for the lower water levels.
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation will get $3.75 million a year and the Spokane Tribe of Indians will get $2.25 million a year to help protect the environment and preserve cultural resources.
Lake Roosevelt water plan
Normal years: 82,000 acre-feet released, dropping the lake by 1 foot. The water is split three ways: 30,000 acre-feet for irrigators to replace groundwater in the Odessa Subarea; 27,000 acre-feet to enhance flows for fish; and 25,000 acre-feet for new municipal and industrial water rights on the Columbia River
Drought years: 50,000 acre-feet released, dropping the lake by 0.8 feet. About two-thirds of that water, or 33,000 acre-feet, will be provided to water users with interruptible water rights on the Columbia River; one-third, or 17,000 acre-feet, enhances streamflows for fish.
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