Walla Walla water plans break new ground

Recently approved plans are the first for a partnership that puts control of water in local hands.

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WALLA WALLA - A pioneer water management project centered in Walla Walla County has passed a new milestone.

The Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership and state Department of Ecology recently approved three local water plans, the first of their kind authorized under legislation proposed by the late state Rep. Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla.

In a release, Cathy Schaeffer, partnership executive director, said each plan is a one-of-a-kind voluntary agreement between water users, the partnership and Ecology to manage water in ways that enhance stream flows for fish while allowing irrigators improved flexibility.

Partnership board members said the agreements demonstrate the progress being made under the new law.

"The partnership is about local control of local water and it's great to have these three water plans now approved and under way," Ed Chvatal, an irrigator and the partnership's chairman, said. "We are making real headway in this pilot program, working with Ecology in a new way outside of the more cumbersome state process."

John Barkley, who represents the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on the board and is vice-chairman of the Tribal Water Commission, said the partnership is another venue vital to both tribal and basin stakeholders in restoring flows and for the protection and exercise of treaty rights.

"Flexible measures, such as local water plans, are beginning steps to develop innovative approaches toward flow restoration without adversely impacting agriculture and other business interests," he said. "Working together to create solutions has been CTUIR's approach and it has proven to be both successful and enjoyable, addressing these natural resource challenges through collaborative means."

Mark Wagoner, Gardena Farms Irrigation District board chairman, said he sees approval of the district's local water plan as a way to improve stream flow conditions for Chinook salmon and provide flexibility to irrigators in their use of water rights.

"The irrigators and tribes are in this together," he said. "We want to help the tribes restore salmon in the Walla Walla basin and the tribes have promised to work with irrigators to keep farms viable in this valley. Aquifer recharge is a good tool for achieving those goals, and the Gardena District's plan will benefit the fish and farms by expanding recharge in winter months and improving early summer flows."

Bob Rupar said his participation in the Pepper Bridge local water plan is an opportunity to leverage the partnership's local authority to improve stream flow conditions and water user flexibility.

"Where this innovative local water planning approach is successful in providing fish flows and common-sense water use flexibilities, there is great potential for local irrigators to lead the way in resolving competing demands for water while preserving water rights for use by our farms, industries and people. I would be happy to talk to other people who might be considering how they can participate in this unique program," he said.

Joel Huesby, site operator for the Stiller Pond recharge site, said the project "represents the first local water plan in Washington where water users have worked with the partnership and Department of Ecology to create a win-win solution for fish and irrigators."

"It is hoped that this local water plan will serve as an example to other irrigators across the state, where groundwater recharge in the off-season can enhance fish and wildlife habitat without compromising irrigation water availability and subsequent productivity of our agricultural lands," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership: www.wallawallawatershed.org

The local water management plans are:

  • Stiller Pond Site. This plan will provide for conservation of summer irrigation water and recharge to the shallow aquifer. In coordination with Walla Walla County Conservation District and Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council, the plan will implement winter recharge at an existing pond site to improve base flows to lower Mill Creek and the Walla Walla River during summer months.
  • Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13. This plan will allow the district to divert water downstream and leave water instream over a 15-mile stretch of the Walla Walla River and recharge the shallow aquifer to enhance stream flows and water quality.
  • Pepper Bridge. This plan will enhance flows in a critical stream reach on Yellowhawk Creek through flexible use of surface and groundwater rights. The improved flows will aid Steelhead and Bull Trout, which are both listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and will authorize water use for winery operations.

(Source: Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership)

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