Hope rises for irrigation deal
Umatilla coalition agrees to discuss more river water
By MITCH LIES
PORTLAND -- The latest effort to develop new irrigation water for Umatilla Basin farmers could provide a breakthrough in what has been a long-standing stalemate between farmers, environmentalists and other fish interests.
At a symposium on Columbia River water at the Northwest Agricultural Show Jan. 29, Craig Reeder, a Umatilla Basin farmer, said a broad coalition is prepared to sign a declaration of cooperation that could increase irrigation supplies in the basin for the first time in two decades.
The two-hour symposium included presentations by Environmental Protection Agency official Mary Lou Soscia, Paul Lumley, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and consultant Ed Sheets.
The symposium was sponsored by Capital Press, Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Northwest Agricultural Show.
Reeder, chief financial officer for Hale Farms, said the coalition effort marks the first time "a really broad stakeholder base got together to talk about all the issues."
Representatives of tribes, ports, municipalities, environmental groups and water users are prepared to sign the agreement, Reeder said.
The effort -- the latest in several attempts to increase irrigation supplies in the basin -- was named an Oregon Solutions Project last year, making it a priority of Gov. John Kitzhaber. The governor convened the diverse group of stakeholders in the fall.
Reeder, who is part of the coalition, said the group plans to sign the declaration in mid-February.
Included in the agreement are calls to work with other states and Canada, he said.
"We're (also) going to work with storage projects ... (implement) additional conservation measures, just to make sure that we are being as efficient as possible," he said. "And then the state is going to offer up some administrative resources."
Kitzhaber is proposing the 2013 Legislature provide funds to help move the measures forward, according to Reeder.
Reeder said the irrigators decided to take additional summer withdrawals off the table early on, which helped move discussions forward.
Environmentalists, tribes and other fish interests have long opposed additional summer water withdrawals from the Columbia River, contending that diverting water for irrigation in spring and summer months could harm endangered salmon runs.
Reeder also said he read books on salmon and tried to see the issues from the perspective of tribes and environmentalists.
"I've gained a tremendous amount of respect for the other side," Reeder said.
Lumley, a citizen of the Yakama Nation Confederated Tribe, said Reeder's approach was vital in moving negotiations forward.
"If we approach the tribes more as a partnership in this agreement and less as adversaries I think there might be a way for us to reach (consensus)," Lumley said.
"I've seen it happen in the Deschutes, the Yakama and (with) the Nez Pearce tribe," he said.
And now, possibly, the Columbia.