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Favor salmon over farmers, panel says


Favor salmon over farmers, panel says
Study looked at drought withdrawals from Columbia River


Farmers should not be given permission to withdraw more water from the Columbia River in the hot summer months unless the flow can be cut off during droughts, because salmon already are under assault by water that is too warm.

That was the conclusion of a long-awaited National Academy of Sciences study released yesterday to the praise of environmentalists and the scorn of farmers.

Instead, conservation and purchases from those who hold long-standing water rights should help lessen the effects of droughts on farmers, the panel of the congressionally chartered academy said.

However, the scientists warned that water shortages are likely to get worse as the climate warms. There are no easy answers to the dilemma, the panel said.

"Columbia River salmon today are at a critical point," the report said.

"The basin's salmon populations have been in steady decline, and scientific evidence demonstrates that environmental thresholds important to salmon, such as water temperature, are being reached or in some cases exceeded."

Ernest Smerdon, a retired engineering professor who was chairman of the panel of 13 scientists from around the country, said: "In the (Columbia) basin, water management may not be critical at all times, but it is certainly critical in these low-flow, high-temperature times."

The advice to the state Ecology Department moves the politically touchy issue squarely back into the agency's lap.

"The findings and recommendations clearly illustrate how complicated the issue is and how challenging it will be to reach solutions," Ecology Director Linda Hoffman said in a statement.



"Over the next month, we'll be reading and digesting the panel's advice to the state, and reaching out to get others' advice on how to proceed."


Since 1980, all approvals for water withdrawals from the Columbia have been issued on the condition that, if a drought struck, the state could temporarily rescind permission to take the water. In the early '90s, as salmon numbers plummeted, Ecology stopped authorizing additional water withdrawals.

The study released yesterday was launched when environmentalists, citing minimum flow levels established by federal officials in 2000 to protect salmon under the Endangered Species Act, petitioned Ecology to enforce those levels.

At the state's urging, the conservationists agreed to withdraw from that legal proceeding in exchange for Ecology's promise to launch the study.

But in that time, about 90 applications for new Columbia River withdrawals have been filed. Many are for high-value agricultural crops, such as wine grapes, cherries and select varieties of apples, said Darryll Olsen, resource economist of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

Olsen attacked the science panel for failing to delve into how much granting those 90 new applications would harm fish. "They punted on that," he said.

Dean Boyer, director of public relations for the Washington State Farm Bureau, questioned the magnitude of the impact that the research panel said irrigation withdrawals would have.

The panel said that under current conditions, 16.6 percent of the Columbia's flow is taken mostly by farmers in July of the driest years. Under scenarios presented by the Ecology Department, that could rise to over one-fifth of the river's flow, the scientists said.

"I have never ever seen a figure that high before," Boyer said.

Environmentalists said the panel should be commended.

"They're saying, 'Wake up Washington. Quit operating in a vacuum. This is a national treasure,' " said Shirley Nixon, an attorney with the Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which closely monitors water use.

"They're saying the existing conditions are already maxing out what fish can stand. Giving away more water rights now is going to make it worse."

The issue has come to a head only once -- during the 2001 drought. Then, farmers had to scramble to buy water from those willing to give it up, and Ecology sought to lessen the impact by reducing the amount of water intended to be left in the Columbia.

But it still cost farmers a lot to buy water. And orchard owners subject to being cut off worried that their long-term investment might be doomed if a drought got bad enough and they couldn't buy water.

"It's a big worry to anybody who has orchards," said Michael Claphan of Auvil Fruit Co., which has apple orchards near Vantage and Orondo. "It's terrible. You get another drought year, and you can't get water.

"Our industry is not doing the best now, and (during a drought) you pay thousands and thousands of dollars just to keep your trees alive when the water is there (in the river). That's what hurts so much."

Like many in agriculture, Auvil was able to buy water from hay farmers and others. In a way, the drought showed how a market in water could help solve the problem, said Clay Landry, a consultant working on a study of water marketing for Ecology.

A water bank could be set up, sort of like what happened during the drought, when farmers went to the Ecology Department and to the federal Bureau of Reclamation offering to buy or sell water, Landry said.

"It facilitates a more flexible market-based approach and allows people to address immediate temporary or long-term needs," Landry said.

Farmers, though, aren't much interested in water banking, said Olsen, the irrigators' economist. Basically, they want the right to get water permanently, not a situation where they lease water on a temporary basis, he said.

"Water banking is very difficult to do," Olsen said. "People are not wild about leasing and water banking. It's not a smooth transition."

Smerdon, the science panel chairman, cited the example of San Diego, which lined the irrigation canals of farmers, greatly reducing the amount of water that seeped into the ground. San Diego also agreed to pay a premium for farmers' water -- 20 times what the Ecology Department once proposed charging in Washington, to howls of protest.

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or robertmcclure@seattlepi.com

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