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Water study data anxiously awaited

This story was published Wednesday, March 24th, 2004

By Anna King Herald staff writer

The end of the month can't come soon enough for orchard owner Bob Brammer.

That's when the National Academy of Sciences will release its study of whether there is enough water in the mighty Columbia River for irrigation, power production, cities, commercial use and fish. It appears everybody, not just Brammer, wants to know. Now.

Brammer's water right application to irrigate more apple and cherry trees in Brewster is waiting with about 90 others statewide. The applications have not been reviewed by the state Department of Ecology because the agency itself is waiting on the academy's study. About 200 applications to use ground water that is near or related to the Columbia River also are delayed.

Agency officials said they couldn't determine whether taking the requested extra water from the Columbia River would affect federally listed fish.

The panel of 13 experts from the academy is expected to recommend how Washington state should manage the Columbia's water for the next 20 years.

State officials plan to use the study and public input to establish new rules for future water rights and how they will be issued and regulated by the Ecology Department.

"It's going to be a foundation for what type of management plan can be created for the Columbia River," said Joye Redfield-Wilder, Yakima-based Ecology spokeswoman.

As soon as the new rule is in place, backlogged water rights such as Brammer's could start being dealt with. But Redfield-Wilder said Ecology may need more resources and money to focus on the work. And many players involved say politics eventually will determine what happens.

Irrigators represented by Darryll Olsen of The Pacific Northwest Project, which is based in Kennewick, say no harm would come to fish by issuing new water rights, even in a worst-case drought year.

"We are talking about an incredibly small amount of water," Olsen said.

He estimated the total take from the river by new irrigation would be minuscule -- about half of a percentage point of the river's total flow per year, or 645 million gallons each day. He said water temperature and river flow fluctuations from Columbia dams have more of an effect than the relatively small amount of water irrigators use.

Those who want to use the water on farms and for development say water equals life.

"You have to have water to do anything," Brammer said.

He and his two partners would plant about 1,000 more acres of apple and cherry orchards if their water right is approved. Without water, their operation can't expand, plan for the future or allow him the versatility to deal with market pressures, he said.

"Right now, there isn't any ability for people to grow except if it's old orchard ground," Brammer said. And the old ground with water rights usually is overpriced and not in the best growing locations, he said.

The stakes are high. If approved, the new water could allow 15,000 to 30,000 acres of new farmland to develop, providing new economic growth and state tax revenue, Olsen said.

Others, however, say the Columbia already is depleted and every little bit of water extracted adds up.

"The problem is there is no clear bright line that biologists can draw that says, 'That's too much,' " said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "It doesn't make much sense to build more irrigation systems in the upper Columbia to create more jobs, just to destroy jobs up and down the coast."

Spain said those dependent on salmon fisheries want to see the Columbia's already struggling ecosystem protected.

"The world is made of small impacts, and they accumulate and make large problems," he said. "Our people are river-dependent just as much as farmers are."

It's possible that if additional water rights are allowed, the state would require mitigation, like a fee for the amount of water drawn or require better management practices such as more efficient irrigation systems, Olsen said.

Both sides agree the academy study will be a fair look at the facts, because both sides regard it as impartial.

But how the study is interpreted into policy will depend on state lawmakers, Spain said. "It will be helpful, but it won't give us any answers to difficult policy decisions," he said.

Olsen said the fate of new irrigation ultimately rests with one person. "I would also argue that this process could depend on who becomes governor," he said.

Gov. Gary Locke has made Columbia River water management a priority, but his successor likely would implement the new DOE rule, Olsen said. If the next governor wants to put up political roadblocks, it could bog down the process, he added.

But for now, irrigators like Brammer and those fighting for fish are focusing on the immediate future and are anxiously waiting for the study's release. Both sides say water is the single most important part of their industry's survival.

"The Columbia River Initiative is the only hope out there that I see," Brammer said. "There is not much to invest in that doesn't look like water. And I can't overstate what water means to this area."






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