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Wednesday, February 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Columbia River plan may end heated disputes

Seattle Times staff reporter

The deep, slow-moving pools of the Columbia River mask a fact that has given farmers and environmentalists fits for decades: There's not always enough water in the Northwest's signature waterway to go around.

But this week, Washington state lawmakers brokered a bipartisan deal that could reshape the future of the Columbia and lower Snake rivers — and transform how the state handles disputes over water.

Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a measure that sets a framework for providing more water to both fish and agriculture in the Columbia Basin. The House approved the same bill 94-4 late Monday. Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to sign it.

The proposal is deceptively simple-seeming, but it could end some of the political and legal wrangling that has raged for years between Western Washington conservation groups and Eastern Washington farmers.

"This truly is a great day for Eastern Washington," pronounced Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. "This is an absolutely tremendous first step."

And for Mo McBroom of the state Environmental Council, who helped negotiate the package, "this, for the first time, really shows that protecting the environment and fish runs is as valuable to the state as protecting farms. They're on equal footing."

In essence, the package allows the state to provide more water to farmers — as long as it is not taken during months the fish need it most, and provided farmers agree to offset new water withdrawals with projects that conserve water.

But the real key to winning support from many Republicans was money. Gregoire agreed the state would set aside $200 million. Two-thirds of it would be to find or create new water supplies for farmers, perhaps by building reservoirs. A third of it would go toward increasing flows in the river.

"Putting that much money on the table really helped break the logjam," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

As dams, cities and agriculture siphoned off water in the 20th century for power and to bring life to Eastern Washington's desert, the Columbia River slowed down and, in the summers, warmed up — magnifying problems for already-troubled runs of salmon and steelhead.

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In response, the state all but halted new irrigation withdrawals roughly 15 years ago, even as some farmers watched helplessly as their wells were running dry. And in the past five years, scientists began predicting that a warming climate would only make things worse by reducing mountain snowpack.

Eastern Washington farmers began pushing for expensive water-supply projects, including proposals to dam and flood valleys. Environmentalists feared such projects would cost too much, could create new problems, and do nothing to help fish.

In the face of that stalemate, Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-West Seattle, who chairs the Senate committee that deals with water, went to Eastern Washington to fish last summer with Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, Ferry County, and work out a solution.

"We were trying to change the culture of how we work on water in Olympia," Poulsen said.

After months of miscues, Poulsen and Morton this year told environmentalists and farmers to lock themselves away and reach a compromise both sides could live with.

During those discussions, farmers argued the state shouldn't rule out building new reservoirs. Conservationists countered that such large-scale water storage should be built only when all other efforts have been tried, and even then after careful environmental review.

In the end, both provisions are included in the package, along with a provision that a third of the water from any new reservoir would be dedicated to help fish.

"We think in many cases, conservation and market measures will be the solution," said Rob Masonis of the conservation group American Rivers.

"But when you think long term, and look at the impact of snowpack loss and population growth, it's likely there will be the need for some storage in the future. Even then, we're not talking about building new dams in salmon habitat. We're talking about flooding a dry valley."

John Stuhlmiller, a lobbyist for the Washington Farm Bureau, granted that building a reservoir would cost billions of dollars. "But it takes lots of millions to get to the point where it's a real possibility, and this will move us forward," he said.

Still, the proposal leaves the Columbia's thorniest problems on the table: It doesn't address tributaries such as the Yakima River, where conflicts between farming and fish are the most difficult.

"We definitely have more to do," said McBroom, with the environmental council.

"But what's exciting is it could potentially develop into more sensible water policy, generally. This is the first step."

Staff reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this report. Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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