Irrigators: Interest strong in Columbia water rights plan

Up to 10 Washington lawmakers have informally agreed to support a measure to sell new Columbia River water rights to raise money to pay for Yakima River water projects.

Darryl Olsen, board representative for the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association, said he expects eight to 10 members of the House and Senate to sign on after he presented the proposal in Olympia on Wednesday morning. The proposal is being assigned a number and will be circulated among lawmakers for signatures.

Olsen said interest was stronger than he expected. He’s optimistic that the bill will be introduced early next week and that it will get a hearing in one or both houses. The 60-day session began Monday. A hearing this session will ensure it stays alive into 2017.

Even though lawmakers are showing interest, irrigators don’t expect much action. The current session is transpiring in the shadow of a presidential election and the re-election bid of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Education funding, charter schools and a carbon tax are likely to consume its limited attention.

The irrigators propose mandating the Washington Department of Ecology sell 150,000 acre feet of new Columbia River water rights every year at market rates of $145 per acre foot per year, based on a capitalized value of $1,725 per square foot. Proceeds would be set aside in a special account where they would be matched by private dollars to raise an estimated $525 million for water projects that improve access in the drought-battered Yakima system.

Ecology manages water rights under 2006 legislation that requires it to make sure water is available to benefit all needs, including people, farms and fish.