Monday, February 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A water trust for streams and farms

Even wading only ankle deep in the arcana of state water law and policy, it is easy to forget the water belongs to the citizens of Washington.

Tensions over water in the West are as old as cultivation of crops that cannot be sustained by annual rainfall alone.

Two politically fragile proposals in Olympia could help advance efforts to protect fish in rivers and streams and promote out-of-stream uses of water, plus cut through the paperwork that buries the water-rights process.

A key is keeping the work close to citizens, and having the Department of Ecology in the background in a watchful, consultative mode. Examples exist where that model has worked well in watershed planning.

As the Legislature looks at Substitute House Bill 2396, the effort to set instream flows for all Washington rivers and streams, the citizen model is all the more important.

An instream flow is a calculation of the amount of water needed for a stream to function through the highs and lows of a water year, and still maintain water quality and support an ecosystem for fish and other demands for water.

Instream flows are intended to protect and support all aquatic life and wildlife as well as the people, jobs and recreational uses that look to a river or stream for water.

The concept is not new in the law, but there is a renewed impetus to get stalled work done. In the past, Ecology has used water purchases, water leasing and water-banking programs to secure cooperative and collaborative efforts from farmers. Their willingness to cozy up to Ecology has been limited at best.

A better, user-friendly approach, using the same tools is through the Washington Water Trust, a nonprofit modeled after an Oregon program.

Using money from the Bonneville Power Administration, Ecology and private sources, the trust pays people for the use of their water, and puts it into a state water trust program, run by Ecology. Farmers may have water rights they are not using for a set period of time, or excess water from a change of use or irrigation efficiencies.

The trust works quietly and confidentially, but the process eventually involves Ecology, the holder of all water for Washington citizens. After initial anxiety, there is confidence the water rights will be safe.

Progress around the Walla Walla River is an example of how hard work and tenacity by local citizens have made watershed planning succeed, and led the way on instream flows. They are also working on habitat conservation and BPA subbasin plan.

Local farmers and non-farmers work with a genuine interest in protecting their local economy and the integrity of agriculture, while looking for solutions with broader applications. Strategic picks — work on the Upper Touchet and tributaries of the Walla Walla — produced successes.

Stamina for endless night meetings has helped them craft solutions of their own, not dictated by a regulator.

In 2003, Washington Water Trust put together more than two dozen trust agreements. The tools are the same, but the relationship is different.

A complementary measure is a relinquishment bill, Senate Bill 6734, that allows for a 10-year look back at water use, instead of five years in current law, and promotes diversions for conservation use without penalty.

The bill creates an annual reporting mechanism on actual and planned water use. The state needs a baseline of information to help manage water for existing and new uses. Both pieces of legislation point in that direction.

The water belongs to the people of Washington. An endless stream of excuses should not be invoked to prevent better management of a valuable resource.

One cannot gripe about the absence of decisions grounded in science, and then grouse about the role of an independent science panel.

Water management needs a jump start. The two bills together can launch the process.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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