Tri-Cities should accept their role in water plan

The Tri-Cities, dependent on new water rights, pushed their way into a key role, helping drive and frame the discussion. Municipalities and independent groups like the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association have demanded change and, in so doing, have given this community the voice it deserves.

May 10th, 2004

KENNEWICK, Wash., May 10, 2004 -- The Tri-Cities face a choice on state water policy that is not as Hobsonian as it might seem.

State officials know they need this community's support for their new Columbia River water management strategy, and they are unabashedly asking for it.

The Tri-Cities, dependent on new water rights, pushed their way into a key role, helping drive and frame the discussion. Municipalities and independent groups like the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association have demanded change and, in so doing, have given this community the voice it deserves.

We can either use this opportunity to influence how our residents and farmers will get more water, or we can cling to easily identified flaws in the plan and stand in the way.

Even though some skepticism is valid, Tri-City interests will be better served by remaining involved.

There is no doubt that the cornerstone of the plan, a National Academy of Sciences' study, is disappointing. The panel of national experts was unable or unwilling to answer the basic question put to it: How much water can be taken out of the river without hurting fish?

The scientists said they were unable to separate the risks posed by water withdrawals from other factors contributing to fish declines.

And they hinted that the state might not want them to try to answer that question, the implication being that a black-and-white reply would force the state to clamp down more severely on water use.

Instead, the panel's $488,000 study stated the obvious: Fish already are struggling, and the low-water months of July and August are especially critical. It recommended the state not take any more water out of the river during those months.

This community expected more specificity. So too did the governor's office and the state Department of Ecology.

But as dissatisfied as we are, the reality is that the National Academy of Sciences is the nation's most respected body for reviewing issues where public policy and science intersect.

There is no better place to send the question, and we cannot expect a different answer unless we are willing to spend much more than a half million dollars on collecting new data.

Instead, lame-duck Gov. Gary Locke is predictably moving forward with the new strategy. It may be, as Locke's administration believes, the only chance to break the stalemate over water rights.

His Ecology Department is refining a plan that would rely on conservation and a better accounting of how much water is actually used to free up water for growth.

Naysayers could conclude the choice before the Tri-Cities is no choice at all. That, community participation or not, the state is doing what it intended to do all along: Allow no one to take additional water out of the Columbia River.

That view ignores that the state's plan is built around tools it already was using to make the most of Columbia River water. It also ignores the fact the plan gives water users some of what they want, such as more reliable access to water.

But there is an even more fundamental issue such criticism misses: What if the state has come up with a way to make additional water withdrawals unnecessary? If so, establishing certainty in water management may trump the need to continue debating whether the state really has to stop handing out water.

The onus is on the state to prove its plan works. The opportunity before the community is to shape that undertaking by asking questions and suggesting answers.

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