Irrigators Not Happy With Reduced Water Usage

March 14, 2001

Columbia River irrigators want Gov. Gary Locke to reconsider a plan to cut their water usage if there's a drought this summer. Estimates indicate the Columbia River will fall below minimum flows this July, August and September, which could trigger curtailment by Ecology of water use in Eastern Washington.

Senators wrote to ask Locke and his water adviser, Jim Waldo, to meet with them and the growers. Irrigators want Locke and the Department of Ecology to drop a plan to reduce water to about 200 users when river levels drop.

"We owe it to the people of this state to keep our growers producing the products that feed the world," wrote the senators, all from Eastern Washington. "Interruption of water could be the final nail in their coffin."

At issue are Columbia River water rights issued between 1980 and 1992, which are subject to the condition that water flows meet certain month-by-month targets. If they do not, the state can suspend irrigation-water deliveries. That has never been done on the Columbia River, but its flows are expected to be about half of normal this summer and some of the lowest on record.

"If it comes down to civil disobedience, so be it -- but the pumps are going to stay on," said Darryll Olsen, consultant for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. "People just can't walk away from the financial investment they have in these systems."

The Republican caucus is pushing the state to reduce minimum-flow requirements, which could be done through emergency rule-making, Olsen said.

Almost all of the association's 80 members have at least some water that the state might block for a week at a time, Olsen said. He estimated about 20,000 acres would be affected.

With the region dumping most salmon-friendly river operations this year in favor of power production, the state now appears on the brink of shutting down farms to run air conditioners, said one of those who signed the letter, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

The irrigators' group is pursuing other options including utilizing water in upstream reservoirs to increase river flows.

Source: The Associated Press