Deal eases Umatilla Basin water dispute

February 16, 2013
Deal eases Umatilla Basin water dispute

By Steven DuBois / The Associated Press

PORTLAND — The decades-long tug-of-war between farmers and environmentalists in Eastern Oregon’s Umatilla Basin eased Friday when they, along with tribal interests and government regulators, agreed to a “declaration of cooperation" on a handful of projects to increase irrigation water without hurting endangered salmon.

The deal signed Friday by Gov. John Kitzhaber and members of a taskforce comprised of competing interest groups includes water storage projects that could divert more Columbia River water in the winter, which is less detrimental to fish than spring and summer withdrawals.

“There is a path forward that allows us to find solutions that balance both in-stream and out-of-stream uses of water," Kitzhaber said.

The rich farmland of the Umatilla Basin produces peas, potatoes, wheat, watermelon and other crops. Potentially valuable acres are left unused, however, because of insufficient water.

The nearby Columbia River tempts farmers with water they can’t use because it’s targeted for hydroelectric power and salmon.

Bob Levy, a farmer who grows peas, corn and alfalfa, said the water problems will probably never go away, but Friday’s agreement represents progress.

“Everything helps," he said. “The idea is to go slow and progress at a speed that doesn’t harm the environment as we move into more agricultural activity."

The projects that won a consensus include:

• Completing the Umatilla Basin aquifer recharge project, which would divert water from the river in the winter, when its flow is high, and store it underground for future use. The governor’s office says it should be up-and-running within three years.

• Repairing the Wallowa Lake Dam, which is now in such poor condition that water levels in the lake have been reduced. Fixing it would allow higher water levels and the subsequent release of more water during irrigation season. The governor’s proposed budget seeks $250,000 for feasibility work. Construction could be done within five years, but more money will be needed.

• Building a Juniper Canyon storage reservoir, estimated at almost 50,000 acre-feet of water, which would be pumped from the Columbia during the winter. The governor’s proposed budget seeks $250,000 for feasibility work. Construction would not occur for another 5-to-10 years, and money would be needed.

The Columbia River- Umatilla Solutions Taskforce also supports leasing water from Washington state, and developing a stronger interstate approach to Columbia water with Washington and Idaho. The agreements with Washington are expected to take several years, said Eric Quaempts, natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Quaempts said the months-long process of reaching the agreement helped everyone understand there are no simple solutions.

“But it didn’t get contentious," he said. “I think what happened was people began to appreciate why it’s complex, why it’s challenging and why you can’t just go write a bill and get 100,000 acre feet out of the Columbia."

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