WALLA WALLA - Sen. Maria Cantwell met with members of the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership on Friday to acknowledge the accomplishments of the trailblazing water conservation group made up of farmers, tribal leaders, environmentalists and local, state and federal government representatives.
But a good portion of her 40-minute discussion with Watershed Management stakeholders, who met at the Walla Walla Community College's William A. Grant Water & Environmental Center, was spent talking about a possible half-billion dollar proposal to pump water from the Columbia River to local irrigation districts, which in turn would allow more water towbe kept in local streams for salmon recovery.
"I think they wanted to elaborate on their future goals list, as well as the current accomplishments," Cantwell said. But the senator made it clear it was too early in the process to comment on the river-flow restoration project that would build a pipeline from the Columbia River to area farmers and use federal funds to pay for it.
Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting the preliminary draft work for the project. So far, its tentative estimate places the project somewhere between $400-500 million. But stakeholders assured Cantwell the initial figures are most likely inflated. At one point, Gardena Farms Irrigation District Chairman Mark Wagoner noted that the Corps included the cost to purchase the land for the proposed pipeline.
"I can tell you farmers aren't going to sell you their land ... But none of the farmers who benefit from this are going to charge for their easements," Wagoner said.
During Cantwell's meeting with the stakeholders, the group also discussed the success of current water conservation practices, such as using closed irrigation systems instead of open ditches to save roughly 30 percent in water use.
As those savings were shared with the senator, stakeholders pointed out that the more saved, the less water that will need to be pumped from the Columbia River, thus lowering the costs for the proposed project.
Stakeholders also pointed out the importance of agriculture to the regional and state economies; it was a point Cantwell noted she already greatly agreed with.
"I tell people on the westside of the state that agriculture is still the No. 1 employer in the state, so we have to keep on with these issues," she said.
After her meeting with the Watershed Management stakeholders, Cantwell toured the Walla Walla Community College John Deere Technology Program Center.
Then the senator left for a meeting with the Corps of Engineers, where she said she would discuss a number of projects, included the river-flow restoration project.