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Know the West

Walla Walla Basin sidesteps a water war


MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. - For more than 100 years, the Walla Walla River has dried up each summer like clockwork, as its water is shunted off to farms on the river's journey from Oregon's Blue Mountains to the Columbia River in eastern Washington. Endangered bull trout and steelhead have been stranded in shallow pools, and volunteers have electroshocked the fish and ferried them by bucket to deeper water downstream.

But last summer, as irrigators to the south in the Klamath Basin lost their water rights to three species of endangered fish, making headlines nationwide (HCN, 8/13/01), residents here accomplished what might be considered a minor miracle in the West: They kept the river from running dry. And, what's more, nobody lost the farm.

Exactly why planners in the Walla Walla Basin were able to make progress on river restoration, something so elusive in the Klamath, is a complicated story. But the strongest motivator bringing apple farmers, Indians and environmentalists to the table appears to be fear - fear that a Klamath-style conflict on the Walla Walla would devastate not just the river, but the economy and community.

In light of this cooperative approach, federal agencies have kept their hands off the Walla Walla. Rather than shut off irrigation water, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has simply required a minimum of 14 cubic feet per second of water in the river at all times. Irrigators work out the details.

"If you have a group of people willing to work together, you can make some real progress," says Michelle Eames of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "It doesn't have to go to court."

Keeping it out of the courtroom

Much of the credit for avoiding a train wreck belongs to the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council, formed in 1994 when local environmentalists invited the farming community to roundtable discussions, where they espoused a "triple-bottom line" - balancing ecology, economy and community.

Judith Johnson, co-founder of the local restoration group Kooskoosie Commons, which, along with local tribes and governments, has a seat on the council, says the big-tent approach has taken some getting used to. "(Irrigators) didn't know how to prepare for this, because (they) usually prepared for battle when (they) came to meet with environmentalists," she says.

But farmers did come to the table, and together, the group has made changes on the ground.

On a spring day, with the winter's heavy snowpack still visible in parts of the Blue Mountains, Brian Wolcott, one of the council's three full-time employees, showed off irrigation-efficiency projects that are allowing the basin's farmers to survive even as they divert less and less water. Blue piping lines irrigation ditches that run through, under and around Milton-Freewater, population 6,560. Every mile of the piping installed in place of the leaky canals - some of which are more than a century old - means approximately one more cubic foot per second of water for the river, Wolcott says, or enough to irrigate 40 acres of orchard or alfalfa. With hundreds of miles of unimproved canals in the system, the potential for conservation is enormous.

The piping project has been funded with grants from the state and Bonneville Power Administration. The council has also secured funding for improved fish screens, which keep salmon and steelhead out of pipes, and a sparkling new fish ladder at one of the larger dams on the Walla Walla. It's encouraging farmers to switch from apples to cherries, which require less water. Combined, these efforts have allowed irrigators to exceed the 14 cubic feet per second requirement imposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, even in dry years.

Farmers' initiative has also kept them out of the courtroom. Three years ago, when a group of Seattle-based environmentalists heard that irrigation districts were failing to keep enough water in the Walla Walla for endangered fish, the big-city greens drafted a 60-day notice of intent to sue. But after meeting with farmers and their hometown environmentalist allies, they dropped their threat.

"We don't have to use strong-arm tactics," says Karen Allston, director of the Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

"(My) customers saw what was happening in the Klamath and decided to make sure it did not happen to them," says Brent Stevenson, manager of the Walla Walla River Irrigation District, which serves 478 farmers, growing a mix of apples, cherries and alfalfa.

Rapids ahead

Still, some fish advocates say the current agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service is inadequate, and long-term habitat planning currently under way may require farmers to give up more water than they can afford. A balancing act could turn into a tug-of-war.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, whose reservation lies along the Walla Walla, say the summer flow needs to double to at least 28 cfs to re-establish a long-extinct spring chinook fishery on the river. So far, rather than sue for change, the Confederated Tribes are exploring other options. In May, they teamed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study how to keep more water in the Walla Walla.

"We are looking at how to bring new water into the basin, so we're not putting anybody out of business," says Terry Shepherd, a policy analyst for the tribes. "Suing our neighbors may get us water but it doesn't mean we're going to live peacefully together."

The study will examine expanding the canal-efficiency programs, establishing a basin-wide pecking order for water rights, and building small upstream reservoirs. Another option is pumping water from the Columbia River as residents have in the nearby Umatilla Basin, where the tribes have worked with irrigators for 10 years to recover salmon.

So while residents of the Walla Walla watershed have already accomplished a Herculean task, there's still a lot of work ahead. "There's a short-term success," says Wolcott, "but we still have to wait and see if there can be a long-term agreement."

Matthew Preusch freelances from Seattle, Washington. This story was funded by a grant from the General Service Foundation.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Can the tide turn for Walker Lake?"