By MITCH LIES
PORTLAND -- Gov. John Kitzhaber on Feb. 15 announced that a taskforce of diverse interests has reached agreement on a strategy to increase irrigation supplies for Eastern Oregon farmers while protecting fish.
"This strategy ... will provide benefits for farmers in the Umatilla Basin and fish in the Columbia River," Kitzhaber said. "It will capture additional stored water when the fish don't need it, and release that water when the fish and the farmers do need it."
To mark the first time environmentalists, tribes and farmers have aligned behind a strategy for managing the Columbia River water, Kitzhaber convened a ceremony where parties to the agreement signed a declaration of cooperation.
"This kind of collaborative project, supporting both agriculture and fisheries in the Umatilla Basin, is a good example of what we need to do to boost the economy in rural Oregon," Kitzhaber said at the ceremony.
"This is a big deal to all of us," said Umatilla County Commissioner Dennis Doherty, a co-convenor of the taskforce.
"We are very, very proud that together we produced consensus on nine project recommendations," Doherty said.
"These together are certainly sufficient to raise the hopes in our basin, without raising unrealistic expectations," he said.
"What we laid down is more than enough to assure that what we have started today will continue tomorrow," Doherty said.
Steve Greenwood, project manager for the taskforce and a Portland State University professor, said the agreement could result in additional irrigation supplies as soon as this summer.
Greenwood said the state will be working on leasing water rights with the Washington Trust Water Rights Program for 1,500 acre-feet of water from the Port of Walla Walla.
"We're hoping that we can maybe cut a deal that will allow that water to be used as early as this season," Greenwood said.
Greenwood said the state also hopes within a month to start putting together a work plan for studying a project to repair the Wallowa Dam, one of the taskforce's nine project recommendations.
Repairing the concrete dam will allow the Association Ditch Co., which owns the dam, to store more water behind it.
Other projects agreed upon by the taskforce include:
* Study the possibility of building new reservoir storage in Juniper Canyon. The potential storage is estimated at 49,000 acre-feet of water, which would be pumped from the Columbia during winter months.
* Build on the current aquifer recovery project being conducted by the Umatilla Basin Water Commission in conjunction with the Westland Irrigation District.
* Lease unused, developed Washington water rights.
* Develop a Umatilla Basin water bank and brokerage.
* Invest in water conservation measures in the Wallowa Basin to potentially provide additional water and potential irrigation in the Umatilla Basin.
* Develop an interstate agreement with Washington to protect water as it flows through that state for potential benefit to Oregon users.
* Discuss the potential for joint investments with Washington for winter storage and release during the summer.
Development of the projects is contingent on legislative support for funding that Kitzhaber has proposed in his budget, said Richard Whitman, Kitzhaber's natural resources policy adviser.
"No legislation is required to implement the projects that have been agreed to by this group," he said, "but we do need state funding to assist with this work and continue moving these projects forward."
Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Commission, said she is supportive of the projects.
"We are going to have some challenges ahead," Dingfelder said. "Funding is always a challenge as we have to meet multiple goals in the legislative process. But certainly having all of you working together moving forward is helpful to us as we try to figure out bipartisan and bicameral support to move this important project forward," she said.
The governor has proposed allocating $1 million to $2 million to the projects as part of $22 million proposed for statewide water development projects, Whitman said.
The funding is for staffing at the Oregon Water Resources Department to help advance the recommendations, to pay for feasibility studies and provide incentives for conservation projects in the Wallowa Basin, Whitman said.