Wash. Governor Signs Bill
by Nicholas Geranios, Associated Press
Legislation to provide the largest new influx of water to towns and farms in the Columbia Basin in three decades was signed Thursday by Gov. Chris Gregoire.
The bill will allow Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam, to be drawn down an additional 82,500 acre-feet a year and as much as 132,000 acre-feet in drought years. The water will be split among municipalities, farms and for survival of endangered salmon.
The releases are a first step under a bill passed in 2006 to find new water supplies for growing communities in the region.
The bill provides additional water to irrigators of 10,000 acres east of Moses Lake, more certainty for those whose water allocations are cut in times of drought, new water to towns with pending water right applications and increased stream flow to help salmon survive in late summer.
"It changes the very way we think about water policy in this state," Gregoire said while signing the bill in Spokane. "This year, farmers, towns and fish will be receiving water in quantities that seemed unthinkable until we showed what can be accomplished when we work together."
An arid sage-steppe that receives little rain, the Columbia Basin is one of the fastest growing areas in the state as well as a source of massive production of potatoes and other crops.
Water from the river is allocated, and the Odessa aquifer is dropping at the rate of 7 feet per year.
The state is also considering additional water storage and delivery projects, conservation and other options for the long run, but taking more water from Lake Roosevelt offers an immediate fix.
The additional withdrawals will lower the reservoir level about 1.5 more feet each summer.
The state recently reached agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, whose reservations border the lake, on payment for tribal costs of the drawdown.
The Colvilles will get about $3.75 million a year and the Spokanes $2.25 million a year to enhance fisheries, protect the environment, preserve cultural resources and other activities. The money is not considered payment for the water.
In addition, local governments around Lake Roosevelt will receive $2 million to cover impacts from the releases.
Supporters of the bill said loss of irrigation water could have cost the region $600 million a year in lost revenue and the elimination of 7,500 jobs.
"Economic benefits throughout the Columbia Basin from the additional water make this one of the best investments we made all session," said state Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, the bill's prime sponsor.
Some environmental groups have disputed the state's economic analysis, saying the value of crops was set too high and the damage from by irrigation has often been understated.
"The historic, massive hydrologic re-engineering of the Columbia Basin via dams and irrigation projects has caused enough damage," said Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Spokane.
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