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Unique partnership gets extension for water planning in the Walla Walla Basin

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law Friday that will extend the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership for two more years, after the bipartisan bill passed unanimously through both chambers.

Legislation originally established the 10-year pilot program in 2009, in order to give local stakeholders collaborative control over water management in southeast Washington’s Walla Walla Basin.

Image: Walla Walla Pilot Local Water Management Program Final Progress Report, October 2018

The partnership is made up of a nine-person Board of Directors — stakeholders who include representatives from the tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Columbia County, Walla Walla County, the City of Walla Walla, irrigators, conservationists, and a citizen who lives in the planning area — along with two advisory committees and three employees. All of the group’s meetings and documents are open to the public.

Chris Hyland, Executive Director of the partnership, says his understanding is that the unique model was proposed in an effort to avoid conflict that occurred in other areas — though he wasn’t there when the partnership was formed.

“Back in the 2000s, there was a lot of consternation — although there still is today — region-wide, in regards to salmon, water issues, and agriculture,” Hyland said. “Where the truck really got off into the ditch is in basins like the Klamath or the Methow.”

A 2014 National Geographic case study on the Klamath Basin describes the conflict there between agricultural interests, which need the water for irrigation, and tribal and commercial fishing interests that need to keep water levels high to support fish populations.

Hyland said that, in those cases, water got cut off for irrigators because of the fisheries’ interests, causing them to lose crops; and, on the flipside, at different times of the years and in other areas, streams would lose water and cause fish to die.

“Basically, about the only people who win in those scenarios are lawyers with billable hours,” Hyland said. “Because the conflict gets so bad, and everybody just lawyers up.”

Hyland said the partnership was formed in order to keep the Walla Walla Basin from meeting the same fate.

“The idea was to get everybody at the table and try to recognize that, look, we can probably get a lot more done by cooperation and everybody sitting down at the same table, as opposed to everybody lawyering up and suing each other,” Hyland said.

In that regard, the group has been successful. Over the last 10 years, according to the pilot water management program’s 2018 “Final Progress Report” to the Legislature, the partnership has “implemented local water management to determine whether greater flexibility of water use helps restore flows.”

“Committed to collaboration and given an unprecedented local management opportunity, the Partnership tested innovative voluntary water management tools that grew out of the idea of ‘flow from flexibility,’ such as local water plans, water banking, and voluntary agreements not to divert,” the program’s 2018 report reads. “Our ability to bring diverse interests together, foster productive communications, and help prevent the outbreak of contentious and adversarial interaction has been a key outcome for the Partnership.”

The report says the partnership has, among other benefits, educated the public through “Water Rights 101” public forums, provided 152 water banking agreements that protect over 20,500 acre-feet of water rights from accruing time of non-use, provided five local water plans that represent over 7,800 acres of irrigable land, and is conducting an ongoing Bi-State Flow Study with Oregon’s Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council to develop a plan for restoring Walla Walla River flows.

“For the last 10 years, the Walla Walla Watershed Partnership has been a model for cooperation,” the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Maureen Walsh, said in her floor speech earlier this session. “It’s kind of called the ‘Walla Walla way.’”

On the other hand, challenges remain related to establishing flow targets, lack of funding, declining groundwater supplies, less reliability of winter snowpack, shifting goals, personnel turnover, and projected population growth, according to the report. Hyland particularly mentioned his disappointment in the “lack of an ability to get more instream flow for fish in the basin.”

Now, the program gets a two-year bridge to what Hyland called “Partnership 2.0.”

Before June 30, 2021, the new law tasks the program to complete performance and financial audits, advance its bi-state flow study, prepare a 30-year integrated water resource management strategic plan in collaboration with the Department of Ecology, and develop a report to the Legislature recommending the scope and scale of a strategic plan.

Something that could be included in the Partnership 2.0, Hyland said, is a way to combine forces with the partnership’s counterpart on the other side of the Washington-Oregon border.

“It allows us to keep working with the board members to develop that vision of what they want, from the 30,000-foot level, out of the partnership,” Hyland said. “At the same time, it allows us to continue doing the work that we’ve been doing the past 10 years related to water rights, flow issues, and a bi-state flow study.”

Hyland said he doesn’t know of any other similar partnerships in the state, but that it’s been tried by a couple other Washington basins.

“The Walla Walla Watershed Management Project is a model for the state,” Sen. Walsh said in a press release. “The partnership was able to gather together the key stakeholders and reach agreements that protect water rights, while keeping enough water in the river to maintain fish runs. Because this approach brought all interested parties to the table, it was able to craft local solutions to local problems.”

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