Water projects bubble up in forum

The state Department of Ecology chief visited Walla Walla for a roundtable discussion Monday.

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WALLA WALLA -- Water projects large, medium and small were on the table Monday as the head of the state Department of Ecology came calling.

Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant met with about 45 local officials and citizens to talk about the promise and progress in locally managing water in the Walla Walla River Basin. The roundtable discussion was chaired by the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership at the William A. Grant Water and Environmental Center.

After an overview of local projects and programs by Cathy Schaeffer, the meeting shifted to a roundtable discussion that ranged from a proposed multimillion dollar project to restore stream flows in the Walla Walla River by piping water from the Columbia River to concerns over the west fork of the Walla Walla River going dry.

One participant asked when practices pioneered by the partnership, such as water banking, might be spread to other areas of the state. "Are you going to make the project run its full course or can you start now?" the person asked.

Sturdevant said Ecology is trying to make water banking, which allows water rights holders to "bank" water instead of losing rights, work in other areas. But one difficulty, he said, is trying to re-create the Walla Walla experience, where people were willing to cooperate to find a solution instead of confront one another.

Hedia Adelsman, Ecology executive policy advisor, said another step is legislation to allow such practices to be done elsewhere. Adelsman noted the Walla Walla Valley is unique due to legislation passed in 2009 that allows the water management partnership to pursue new practices, but only in the Walla Walla River watershed.

"The legislation confines this to Walla Walla, you cannot just take it to other basins (and) you have to be able to see the collaboration" that makes such approaches work, she said.

Edward Chvatal Jr., chairman of the watershed management partnership, noted that what is happening here has garnered attention beyond the confines of the state.

"Two years ago a group from New Zealand came in to visit Nelson Irrigation and they visited the water center as well," he said. What they saw happening here prompted them to invite the partnership to send a member to Christchurch, New Zealand, to talk to a convention there working to achieve the same solutions for balancing the needs of many for a finite resource.

"Worldwide it's the same problem. A lot of hands are reaching for the same thing."

In closing, Sturdevant said the state, and his agency, has a big stake in the success of the Walla Walla partnership.

"You guys are looking like our best bet to create a new and better way to manage water," he said.

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

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