Our Northwest Water
12:00 am
Thu November 12, 2009

Irrigators fed up with state over increased water rights

Columbia and Snake River irrigators have run out of patience with the state of Washington's slow work to increase irrigated acreage that was agreed to in 2006, according to Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association leaders.

If the state will not support efforts to allow irrigators to use some of the water freed up by conservation efforts, irrigators will no longer be willing to support the state's other conservation projects, said Darryll Olsen, a consultant to the irrigators association, during a meeting with the Herald editorial board.

Irrigators believe a 2006 law requires the state to allow some conservation savings to be used for additional irrigation. They say they have allowed conservation projects to be paid for that make sense for the environment, such as improving fish habitat, even if they don't have the direct benefit for irrigators they believe the law requires.

They're proposing a program in which half of the water irrigators conserve through good water management practices could be used to irrigate additional land. In exchange, farmers would not take their remaining allocation from the rivers that they're legally entitled to.

That water would remain to augment river flows and help fish runs during low-water periods. But the irrigators' plan has not drawn support from the state Department of Ecology and its advisory board.

The Columbia River Policy Advisory Group meets today in Ellensburg and is scheduled to consider the irrigators association's proposal. The state also is expected to present its own proposal, which it has not revealed, that it said balances fish-friendly projects with new rights for agriculture.

If irrigators do not get state support, "we're done," Olsen said. "Enough is enough. You have to be reasonable." The 2006 law calls for voluntary regional agreements to offset new water withdrawals and foresees irrigators as a key participant.

The dispute stems from a long-running legal dispute between irrigators and the state over lengthy state delays in processing a large backlog of water rights applications. The dispute appeared to be resolved in 2006 with the approval of the Columbia River Water Management Act.

The act was intended to expand water storage projects and also to issue new water rights that would become available through conservation and management of water, Olsen said.

"The bottom line is it is almost 2010," Olsen said. "They've been horsing around almost four years."

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association is proposing a pilot project for six properties. Using techniques such as soil moisture probes, weather monitoring and irrigation scheduling, water used for irrigation can be cut by about 17.3 percent, said Mark Nielson, manager of the Benton Conservation District and of the Franklin Conservation District.

Costs of $8 to $30 an acre for the program would be borne by the water right holders. From the 17 percent water savings, irrigators could spread half on their land and the other half would stay in the rivers.

As the program is expanded, the water savings could be significant as irrigators not using conservation methods now would see how they worked, according to water users. Irrigators would have to sign up for the conservation program annually.

"Our disagreement is about going back in time," said Derek Sandison, director of the Office of the Columbia River for the state.

Some irrigators began using less water 20 years ago as a business decision, he said. It may have reduced costs of pumping and equipment maintenance. To allow them to start using some of the conserved water for additional acreage now would amount to additional water being used rather than conserved, he said.

The irrigators maintain they have the right to use their full allotment of water on land that already is under irrigation. The state would be more interested in a program that would reward new conservation by those irrigators who have not already developed good conservation practices, he said.

"Sometimes Ecology has to own up that people are trying to make things better," said Ron Reimann of T&R Farms of Pasco, an irrigator who said he has spent years testing irrigation conservation practices. "My frustration is trying to work with them."

Under the proposed program that Ecology is not supporting, T&R Farms would be allowed two more irrigation circles.

The irrigators' complaints come as the state Department of Ecology is working toward releasing more water from Lake Roosevelt, which would help Columbia and Snake irrigators who hold interruptible water rights, Sandison said. It would allow them full water usage during drought years, he said.

Dozens of projects are being paid for, including storage, conservation and pump exchanges, that will provide new permits and in-stream benefits related to the Columbia River, but the projects take time to study, design and build, the state said.

The Department of Ecology also wants study results that would show how quickly water used for irrigation would return to the river and believes the irrigation association agreed to that. But the irrigation association has dragged its feet on studies, which the state would pay for, Sandison said.

The advisory group that will discuss the irrigators' proposal today has not been enthusiastic about a similar earlier proposal. The group includes tribes, cities, counties, industrial users, federal government representatives, environmental groups and irrigators.