Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Planning unit wants more info before setting water flow levels"

From yesterday's Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Still nothing on removing the impaired status of the South Fork of the Palouse River...
The planning unit charged with setting instream water flow levels in the North Fork of the Palouse River has decided to slow down the process to make sure it balances the needs of fish and humans.

The primary reason for the slowdown is that the planning unit wants to make an accurate and fair decision about the water needs of the North Fork for the next 25-50 years. State money to hire a consultant also is running out, and planning unit members don't feel they are ready to make a decision on their own.

The planning unit is made up of Whitman County staff and elected officials, local landowners and representatives from the Palouse Conservation District and the city of Pullman.

Whitman County Commissioner Michael Largent said the planning unit will request help from outside agencies that have experience dealing with the instream water-flow process. The goal is to assess how much actual water is needed to sustain development and native habitat.

Whitman County makes up the majority of Water Resource Inventory Area 34. The state is forming water-use plans to determine how much water is available and how much is being used. The instream water-flow process will be used for the WRIA's long-range planning. It is designed to protect senior water rights in a watershed, give instream plants and fish enough water to protect their habitat, and determine if sufficient water remains to allow future domestic water rights.

At the planning unit's last meeting earlier this month, state agencies tried to get the planning unit to agree on a reserve number that would allow for future growth. The county threw out 1 cubic foot of water per second for a water reserve.

Largent said that number is mostly useless without an in-depth understanding of what it means.

Largent plans to contact a Washington Farm Bureau lawyer who helped write the legislation for the WRIA process and has dealt with instream water flow processes.

The WRIA group has relied on the Washington Department of Ecology and its consultant for advice. Now, it wants some other opinions.

"The county isn't out to rape and pillage its resources, contrary to many beliefs," Largent said. "We want to balance the needs of fish and humans."

Largent hopes outside perspectives will help the unit reach a water reserve that will allow for growth and preserve native habitat.

Rob Buchert, with the Palouse Conservation District, which is facilitating the process, said money also is a huge factor in the group's decision to slow down.

Ecology gave the planning unit $15,000 to hire an outside consultant to help the unit with its planning. The money pays for four meetings, and the planning unit already has had three.

By asking for help from experienced people in the state, the planning unit hopes to have a better idea of what it needs and optimize the last meeting.

"We're trying to make a $100,000 decision with $15,000," Buchert said. "We are faced with making a decision on limited information on something with long-reaching implications. We want to make darn sure we have the best information available and make accurate interpretations of that information."

Some people have begun to link the conservation district with Ecology, but Buchert said they are separate and unique entities.

The conservation district is chaired by five local farmers who set the goals for the district. Buchert said the board has determined that water-planning issues are important and that is why the Palouse Conservation District is facilitating the WRIA process.

Ecology and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would set flow rates and determine water allocations if Whitman County, the conservation district and other entities and individuals were not involved.

Largent and Buchert said that could be harmful to the area because the state entities would have to develop their plans based on worst-case scenarios.

The planning unit will meet June 11 to discuss the problems and attributes of setting water flows based on mean water-flow data.

Part of the operating rules for Ecology in determining instream water-flow settings is that it considers groundwater and surface water to be directly connected. The planning unit wants to know how they are connected and how long it takes for water to penetrate the soil and reach the stream.

Largent said people could pump groundwater during a dry spell and not have a sudden impact on stream levels.

"We just don't know at this point, and it's hard to set policy on that," Largent said. "But we have to move forward so we are going to look to other people that have experience for advice."

Largent said the planning unit needs and wants to use the area's water, but it also wants to be wise and not limit growth unnecessarily.

The planning unit had hoped to determine its minimum water-flow settings by year's end. It is unclear whether it will be able to make a decision by that time.

No comments: