Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Stacking The Water Deck: Idaho Holds All the Cards

From today’s Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Group begins to crunch flow numbers

Negotiations will determine how much water is available in North Fork of the Palouse River

People can walk across many sections of the North Fork of the Palouse River in late summer without getting their ankles wet.

Representatives from the Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Whitman County and a few landowners met Monday to begin creating a water reserve that will allow for growth in the North Fork drainage for the next 25 to 50 years.

The problem is, there's not a lot of water to work with.

The planning group is working on an instream flow setting process on the North Fork as part of the water use planning for Water Resource Inventory Area 34, which encompasses most of Whitman County.

The instream flow process is designed to safeguard existing water rights, provide each stream with a water level that will sustain its native habitat and discover whether future growth is possible. Optimally, Ecology will recognize a water reserve for the area that will allow for future growth.

Any potential new water rights will be junior to both the senior water rights and the stream's flow requirements.

The best projection would allow for new domestic water rights to be permitted throughout the year. However, there may only be enough water for new water rights to be issued for storage projects and seasonal use during peak flow times.

Ecology representative Mimi Wainwright and planning group consultant Lisa Dally Wilson said the bottom line is there isn't a lot of extra water in the North Fork during the warm summer months, when it's needed most.

Even when the river runs at its highest levels, it still drops below the point of optimal aquatic habitat, which is about 50 cubic feet per second. Most years, the average water volume is less than 10 cubic feet per second from July to October.

Based on those numbers, rapid growth in nonmunicipal areas won't be possible while maintaining consistent water flows in dry years, when flows are as low as 1.5 cubic feet per second.

Towns like Palouse, Colfax and Garfield are not under the same restrictions. As municipalities, they have existing water rights they will not use to capacity by 2025 at current annual growth rates of 1.6 to 3.93 percent.

For rural areas, the county has suggested the planning group set the growth reserve at 1 cubic foot per second, which would reserve around 254 cubic feet, or 81,462,750 gallons, of water for the next 25 to 50 years.

Those projections assume that the population will double between 2007 and 2025. Wainwright said that number will never be approved, but it's a starting point for negotiations.

Whitman County Commissioner Michael Largent said the number will give the planning group a bargaining position for growth.

Several group members, including Wainwright and Whitman County Public Works Director Mark Storey, recommended an adaptive management plan that would study the impacts and connection between groundwater and surface water.

"We don't know how they are connected," Largent said. "And what we decide now will become the template for all of WRIA 34. The county has an obligation to approach cautiously."

Ecology implies continuity between ground and surface waters unless sound science to the contrary is provided.

When the studies are complete, the planning group and Ecology may be able to determine whether deep-water wells impact surface water and aquatic habitat. Water reservations will assure the possibility for growth while more-advanced studies are completed.

Largent and several landowners have expressed worries that the instream flow numbers won't equate to future growth, but there is some wiggle room. The water flow graph the planning group is working on can be adjusted, and Wainwright said that gives the group some power.

The planning group has not decided to formally recommend that the North Fork's water reserve be set at 1 cubic foot per second. Group members will return next month with their own recommendations and the negotiations will begin.

"This is what we wanted to do at this meeting," Buchert said. "Hopefully, by the next meeting we can begin this discussion."

The planning group's next meeting is set for 3 p.m. June 11 at the Public Service Building in Colfax.


WHAT HAPPENED: The North Fork of the Palouse River instream flow study group met with Washington State Department of Ecology and Department of Fish and Wildlife officials to begin discussions on how much water should be reserved for future growth in the North Fork watershed.

WHAT IT MEANS: The reservations will determine how much water will be available for nonmunicipal growth in northern and central Whitman County for the next 25 to 50 years.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: The planning group will debate the merits of different reservation numbers and then send its recommendation to state agencies. The negotiations begin from there.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Water becomes more scarce as development occurs on the Palouse. The instream flow process is designed to safeguard existing water-right holders, provide a water right to instream habitat and budget water for the future.
Now, read a story that was published in the Daily News last Friday:
Meanwhile, an instream water flow study being conducted on the North Fork of the Palouse River will determine how much water is needed to sustain instream habitat, how much is available for future development and how much is needed to protect senior water rights.

Most of the Palouse region's surface water comes from run-off in Idaho, and there is a general concern that water-use planning in Washington could be useless if the water it depends on is soaked up before it crosses the state line from Idaho.

Rob Buchart, district manager of the Palouse Conservation District, one of the agencies involved in the WRIA and instream flow processes, agreed with Haynes about the lack of communication between the states.

If the two states and their water-use entities do not work together, Buchart said water usage in Idaho could change and leave the Palouse dry.

Haynes said that isn't an immediate concern. The Palouse watershed basin isn't undergoing a shift in water use. Although Idaho hasn't stopped issuing new water rights as Washington has, Haynes hasn't heard of any new nonresidential water rights being granted in the area in the last decade.

But many new homes have been built in that period.

Idaho residents can pump 13,000 gallons of water per day without a water right, but there are conditions. Theoretically, a person could start a feedlot that holds 1,000 head of cattle without a permit, but Haynes said almost all the residential water use revolves around a single dwelling and maybe a few head of livestock. In that case, the owner could only pump enough water for the stock and household needs and not the full 13,000 gallons.

Washington has invited Idaho to be part of the water allocation process, and the state did participate for a while, Buchart said. He said how to get the two working together again is the million-dollar question.

Buchart said the WRIA process could be a mechanism to get the two states talking. He hopes Washington planners can meet with their Idaho counterparts and suggest how the two states can work together and the Idaho representatives can petition state officials in Boise for funds and support.

Haynes and Buchart pointed to the Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee as an example of that kind of cooperation. PBAC is an interlocal organization with representatives from both sides of the border. Its goal is figuring out how to preserve groundwater supplies that deliver almost 100 percent of the domestic water in the Pullman-Moscow area. But PBAC primarily focuses on the Palouse aquifer basin and not on surface-water supplies.

The WRIA process could focus on the surface-water issues since PBAC is focused on the ground water, Buchart said. If the groups can get the two states working together toward solutions, costly court battles could be avoided.

Haynes said Idaho has tackled expensive litigations over water in the past. Idaho is willing to work with Washington concerning water issues and it understands and encourages local agencies to work together instead of bringing the court system into the picture.

Haynes said that might be inevitable as both states vie for the same water, but mechanisms for communication could be emerging. The two states have begun talking about how to share resources in areas north of the Palouse, around the Rathdrum Prairie and Spokane River.

Those areas also will be undergoing a water-right adjudication process that will identify active and inactive water rights and determine how much water is being used.

Haynes said those communication networks could also be applied to the Palouse drainage.
Allow me to connect the dots, if you haven’t already. DESPITE ALL THE PSEUDO-ENVIRONMENTALIST RHETORIC ABOUT THE CORRIDOR, IDAHO HOLDS THE KEY TO WATER, AND THEREFORE GROWTH, ON THE PALOUSE. I can guarantee you there will always be plenty of surface water upstream for Idaho growth, while we beg on our hands and knees to the traitorous bureaucrats at the Department of Ecology to pretty please cut us some slack so the little minnows can keep swimming in the ditches.

Unfortunately for Idaho, however, part of the ground water supply for the Palouse lies underneath Washington territory. Enter Mark Solomon and Nancy Chaney. Their protests of the water transfer applications by the Hawkwins Companies are designed to teach the impudent Whitman County Commissioners a lesson on who really calls the shots around here. It’s all for Moscow, and the bullies ain’t about to share.

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