Attorney General Rob McKenna laid on some folksy charm during a lunch Friday with a local irrigators association, singing the praises of the Washington farmer and telling tales of his own multigeneration farming family in Iowa.
The gangly redhead stood at a podium at the Columbia Center Red Lion in Kennewick and waxed nostalgic about his Irish great-grandfather, who bought 160 acres from a railroad in 1875 and eventually turned it into several prosperous farms about an hour from Sioux City.
About 40 members of the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association listened as McKenna described a 1945 newspaper interview of his great-grandfather, who was 95 at the time and the oldest man in town.
In the interview, the elder McKenna talked not about his successes, but the time before the turn of the 20th century when grain elevator operators charged him more when he had to repurchase some of his own corn as feed than they had paid him for it originally.
"He was still bitter about it," the attorney general said. "What that taught me was it was not an easy life to be a farmer before mechanization but also after mechanization, and yet because he and his brothers had worked so hard they left an amazing legacy.
"When I go back to Iowa today and visit the farms, when I go back and stand on the land that is still in the family, it makes me feel more connected to my own state," he said. "Because I come over here so often and get to talk to people in agriculture, I have some sense of what's required, what you've invested and what it takes to keep a farm in the family and be successful."
What it takes is water, and McKenna said he believes it is necessary for the Legislature to pass a bill allowing irrigators to conserve water without losing their water rights.
Previous attempts to pass such a bill have failed, but McKenna said it's time for lawmakers to recognize that people like the members of the irrigators association are the best stewards of natural resources.
"As attorney general, I have reached some conclusions about water," he said. "The first thing I have learned based on my own experience is that organizations like the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association are very, very important to the wise management of water resources in Eastern Washington. Moreover, they are really vital to our state economy."
He spoke about the importance of agriculture to the economy, and the state's need to optimize the economic potential and benefits of the Columbia River.
In part, state laws need to be changed to allow water that is conserved to be applied to new ground, he said.
"The strategy for water policy in our state must be set up to incentivize water conservation within water rights allocation," he said. "You know what optimal conservation looks like. What the state needs to avoid is penalizing you for doing so."