River advocates warn of water scarcity
Couple works to help protect drinking water, balance allocation
By MATTHEW WEAVER
SPOKANE -- Two Washington state river advocates believe farmers, ranchers and lawmakers should begin preparing for less water.
"It seems to be an unfortunate habit humans have of extracting resources to the point where they're gone," said Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Spokane. "I don't see the solution that we now drain our rivers to make up for that."
She said the center's fundamental goal is to achieve a balance in water allocation.
Her husband, John Osborn, a board member, said more people at risk of losing their drinking water are approaching the center.
The center's efforts include helping the Five Corners Family Farmers who claimed they were threatened by the new 30,000-head Easterday feed lot in Mesa, Wash., and ranchers concerned about the effects of the Lower Crab Creek Dam.
"We find ourselves doing something very important to us at a personal level," John Osborn said. "We're trying to help people facing real struggles to protect drinking water or rivers."
Other CELP projects include:
* Opposing the expansion of the Columbia Basin Project, which would bring irrigation water to farmers facing declining aquifers. CELP most recently presented arguments against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Lake Roosevelt drawdown May 3 before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle.
* Presenting oral arguments in Whitman County Superior Court against Washington State University's efforts to increase water use as it expands its golf course.
* Appearing in June to present oral arguments before the Washington State Supreme Court, challenging the attorney general's opinion that feedlots can use unlimited amounts of groundwater for stockwatering without a permit.
Asked about the way they think agriculture perceives the center, the Osborns note that they've worked with farmers on some projects, while opposing groups like the Columbia Basin Development League and the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.
Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for the league, said he doesn't see much potential for common ground with CELP, which opposes the league's goal of continued development of the Columbia Basin Project.
Jack Field, executive director of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said CELP's stockwatering goals clearly differ from the livestock industry and other agriculture groups.
"I don't know that common ground is possible," Field said. "It's somewhat unnerving to see that an entire industry is either in business or out of business depending on the outcome of a court case."
Darryll Olsen, board representative for the irrigators association, told the Capital Press he considers the center a "non-entity" and speculated that the views it represents are solely those of Rachael Paschal Osborn.
"Anybody can go sue anybody -- that doesn't necessarily mean you're viewed as a stakeholder or having any kind of credible position within the whole issue," he said. "I don't think they're interested in agriculture at all, in any shape or form."
Rachael Osborn believes agriculture is "thriving" in Eastern Washington and parts of Western Washington. Water rights are used with "varying degrees of efficiency" to produce food, another essential components, she said.
She hopes to preserve farmland capable of dryland farming. There aren't many locations in the West where dryland farming can succeed, she said.
John Osborn thinks a transition is likely.
"We're at this point in history where we're inheriting overappropriation of waters and as you look forward, water is becoming increasingly scarce," he said. "We really need to move forward with a series of reforms and a focus on conservation, water markets and general efficiencies."
Rachael Osborn doesn't foresee an endpoint for the center's work. Water will become more scarce as water resources decrease.
"Conservation of water is going to become a moral imperative," she said.
Management of the Columbia River needs to change, they believe. The anticipated impacts of pollution, climate change and the Columbia River Treaty all should be considered before more allocations are made from the river, Rachael Osborn said.
While neither Osborn has a farming background, Rachael Osborn says she has a lot of admiration for them, noting her paternal grandfather was a farmer.
"It's hard work and it's essential work," she said. "Farmers feed people. We disagree in certain places on methods and resource use, but the trend toward fewer farms is not a good direction to be going."
Osborns and CELP at a glance
Rachael Paschal Osborn is originally from Waco, Texas. She grew up in California and studied at the University of Washington School of Law. She teaches water law at Gonzaga University in Spokane.
John Osborn is originally from Bellingham, Wash., and grew up in Boise, Idaho. He also graduated from UW. Osborn is chief of medicine at the Spokane Veterans Hospital.
Rachael Osborn co-founded the Center for Environmental Law and Policy with University of Washington Law School professor Ralph Johnson in 1993.
John Osborn, a longtime supporter of environmental organizations, first became involved in 1994. Rachael asked him to join the center's board because of his experience.
The center has about 600 dues-paying members, mostly in Washington state. Funding comes from a combination of donations from members, larger individual donors and organizations. The annual budget is about $150,000 per year, and the center depends "enormously" on volunteer service, John Osborn said.
The couple has been married since 2000.
"We were friends for a long time, and it just evolved," Rachael said. "We share a lot of the same interests and passions about the world."