Needs of fish and irrigators
23,000 acre feet to streams
"Voluntarily enhancing flows
for fish and wildlife is preferable to regulatory actions."
— BILL GRAHAM, Idaho
Department of Water Resources bureau manager
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
With the first of a five-year
trial period under its belt, an experimental collaborative group that is
striving to resolve water and fish related issues in the Columbia River
basin is giving itself a pat on the back.
"There’s a lot of national
interest in what we’re doing here," said Peter Dykstra, project director
for the Washington Water Trust, a nonprofit group that is one of 10
collaborating partners in the experimental effort. "Finding common
ground around an issue that’s been making people cranky for
The Columbia Basin Water
Transactions Program is working to return water to streams and
rivers through cooperative efforts with irrigators. The Pahsimeroi River
basin, east of Challis, is one area where projects of this nature have
been initiated by Idaho Trout Unlimited and the Bureau of Land
Management. Express photo by Ken Retallic
Ten organizations and agencies
across Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana have completed the first
year working collaboratively to try balancing the needs of agriculture
and endangered fish in dry parts of the region. Using market-based
strategies, the so-called Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program says
it is improving stream flows and helping landowners become proactive.
Across the basin—which drains a
massive portion of the Northwest—more water rights have been granted to
landowners than there is water to meet them in a normal year. In dry
years, shortages are even more severe and many streams dry up
While much of the first year of
work has focused on establishing the program, a total of 34 transactions
costing $152,840 returned 23,000 acre feet of water into 21 streams
throughout the Northwest.
According to the group, dry
streams pose risks to wildlife and aquatic species and also create the
potential for regulatory solutions are "acute and inflexible."
"We’re offering voluntary
opportunities to farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts who see the
value of keeping streams wet for fish and other wildlife in ways that
also support agriculture and local economics," said Andrew Purkey,
manager of the Portland-based Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program.
The program is funded primarily by
the Bonneville Power Administration in cooperation with the Northwest
Power and Conservation Council, formerly the Northwest Power Planning
According to BPA representative
Chris Furey, the BPA will provide up to $4 million to the Columbia Basin
water Transactions Program in 2004 to help meet goals of the Northwest
Power Act and the Endangered Species Act. He said it is a cost-effective
win-win for irrigators and for habitat.
"Voluntarily enhancing flows for
fish and wildlife is preferable to regulatory actions," said Idaho
Department of Water Resources Bureau Manager Bill Graham. "It’s an
effort that water users and managers can support."
The effort’s advocates point to a
number of varying methods that can be used to conserve water. An example
includes an effort in Montana last year where the Trout
Unlimited-Montana Water Project helped line an irrigation ditch on
Poorman Creek. The landowners agreed to lease the saved water to Trout
Unlimited in order leave it in the stream to benefit ESA-listed bull
According to Purkey, the program
aims to bring a balanced approach to what is a very contentious water
right arena by respecting private property rights while improving
"We need to respect irrigated
agriculture," Purkey said. "It’s going to take some time."
The program has set 2004 goals of
completing transactions hat result in increased in-stream flows of 100
to 125 cubic feet per second in streams where ESA-listed fish live.
The end result, said Laura Ziemer
of the Trout Unlimited-Montana Water Project, is that water will be
returned to streams.
"When you find fish back in a
creek that was just a run of dry rock—and the folks who make that
possible feel proud rather than pushed—that means something in a
community," she said.