Help today, hope for tomorrow themes of Gregoire visit

The governor was in Eastern Washington on Thursday to talk irrigation and crop disasters.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire listens as Stuart Durfee, Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13 manager, talks about water issues during a visit by the governor Thursday to the Walla Walla Valley. (July 1, 2010)

Watch video of Gov. Gregoire's visit below.

WALLA WALLA - Dreams and disasters were all part of Gov. Chris Gregoire's visit to the Walla Walla area Thursday.

At the start of a two-day swing through Eastern Washington, Gregoire toured areas of the Walla Walla River, where she discussed current and future water projects, including a proposed effort to restore historic flows in the river.

The multimillion dollar project would pump water from the Columbia River to local irrigation districts in exchange for irrigators leaving water in the river to protect endangered fish species.

"There's nothing we can't accomplish if we work together," Gregoire said during her first stop over the state line at Harris Park, where the Walla Walla River flows past on its way into Washington.

The disaster part came later in the day when the governor announced she has asked U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to designate 29 counties in Washington, including Walla Walla and Columbia counties, as farm disaster areas due to weather-related losses.

The damage was the result of extreme weather conditions throughout the spring, including severe cold, high winds and excessive rains.

"Conditions this year have been difficult for our growers across Washington, from Clark County to Okanogan," Gregoire said. "Cold temperatures have harmed our tree fruit crops, while excessive rain made it difficult for bees to pollinate strawberries and other berry crops. A declaration will help our businesses absorb a difficult year and look forward."

Looking ahead was the dominate theme of the morning visit to the area as Gregoire reviewed past successes, today's problems and tomorrow's hopes with tribal representatives, local officials and private citizens.

Gregoire said her administration has already provided $40 million to the Columbia River exchange project and is working with Oregon and Congress to obtain more funds. Because of the success achieved by people working together in the Walla Walla River basin, this kind of collaboration has become a model for other areas, she said.

The governor lauded the cooperation between private citizens, the tribes and government agencies that has avoided costly court battles and produced workable solutions to provide water for fish and farming. "The choice that was made was to collaborate" and not confront, Gregoire said.

At Harris Park, the governor talked with Kat Brigham, secretary of the board of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and with tribal members Chris Williams and Mitch Pond about the restoration of salmon to the river years after the fish disappeared.

"It's a dream come true to fish (for salmon) in the Walla Walla River," Williams said after he and Pond had demonstrated traditional fishing techniques for Gregoire in the fast-flowing stream.

The next stop on the tour was the diversion for Gardena Farms Irrigation District 13 near College Place. At that stop, Gregoire talked with irrigators, and members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Walla Walla County Conservation District about work to increase the efficiency of irrigation systems serving farms in the region.

The hopes for the Columbia River water exchange again surfaced as officials talked about how the project would stabilize water supplies for growers, settle tribal water rights claims and restore salmon runs.

"When you layer all these things together, it's huge," said Greg Graham, chief of planning for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District office.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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