Agriculture

2016 Legislature: Irrigators propose Columbia River water sales

The Columbia and Yakima rivers merge in the heart of the Tri-Cities, just south of Columbia Point in Richland. The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association plans to ask Washington legislators this year to authorize new water rights on the Columbia River and to earmark proceeds to support water projects on the Yakima River.
The Columbia and Yakima rivers merge in the heart of the Tri-Cities, just south of Columbia Point in Richland. The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association plans to ask Washington legislators this year to authorize new water rights on the Columbia River and to earmark proceeds to support water projects on the Yakima River. Tri-City Herald file

Washington will sell new rights to Columbia River water to irrigators if a bill being introduced to the 2016 Legislature becomes law.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association meets with potential sponsors this week to discuss a bill to raise money for Yakima River irrigation projects by selling Columbia River water rights.

The bill, written as a substitute version of SB 5628, is to be filed within the next two weeks.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, said he’s happy to support it.

“The Columbia irrigators have always been spot-on when it comes to water management, so they’ve got my support,” he told the Herald.

The Columbia irrigators have always been spot-on when it comes to water management so they’ve got my support.

Rep. Larry Haler, R.-Richland

The original bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Yakima, would have created a new land and water tax and was opposed by irrigators and businesses.

Darryll Olsen, with the irrigators association, doesn’t expect the proposal to pass this year. The association does want its plan to boost water supplies in the drought-battered Yakima on the table for serious consideration in 2017.

“Nothing is going to happen this session. This is the governor’s race session,” he said.

Dramatically increasing the amount of water coming out of the Columbia will be controversial.

“I’m skeptical from your description,” said Michael Garrity, director of rivers in Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin for American Rivers, a conservancy group that ranks the Columbia the second most-endangered river in the U.S. “We believe there should be a high bar to any new water rights coming out of the Columbia River.”

We believe there should be a high bar to any new water rights coming out of the Columbia River.

Michael Garrity, American Rivers

The proposed legislation requires the state Department of Ecology to sell water rights annually at a cost tied to market rates. The 25-year leases would carry an annual fee of $145 per acre-foot, based on a capitalized value of about $1,725 per acre-foot.

There are 325,851 gallons in an acre-foot.

Olsen estimate the new rights would consume one-half of 1 percent of the river’s total flow in a drought year and one-tenth of 1 percent in a regular year.

Water leases would generate about $262 million in the first decade, irrigators estimate. The money would be placed in an account dedicated to water improvement projects on the Columbia tributaries, namely the Yakima.

Coupled with private funds, it would generate about $525 million. Olsen said the proposal recognizes it’s unrealistic to wait for public funds for water projects

“We have to use private sector capital. Federal and state funding for water projects is over. Get over it,” he said.

We have to use private sector capital. Federal and state funding for water projects is over. Get over it.

Darryll Olsen, Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association

The plan rests on classifying all money as private, including the lease payments.

Olsen said it’s important because the private sector can build projects far more cheaply than any government agency.

Economics have doomed storage proposals, dating to the massive Black Rock Reservoir plan first pitched nearly two decades ago.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation abandoned that Yakima Valley project as too expensive in 2008 after spending some $18 million on studies.

“It was a dog, economically,” he said.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, whose members currently irrigate about 250,000 acres of row crops, vineyards and orchards in Eastern Washington, acknowledge the value of water and want the opportunity to pay fair-market prices.

“We’re used to paying for water. Give us the access,” Olsen said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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