Local collaboration boosts progress on water management

The Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership, a locally-focused, collaborative approach, is winning favor among local leaders. Photo: Freepik

After years of discussion over water rights, in-stream flow rules, the infamous Hirst decision and many other points of contention, there is reason to believe the state can develop collaborative approaches to manage water for everyone.

One bright spot is Walla Walla, a name which translates to “many waters.” Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously passed SB 5352 to extend the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership by two years and begin developing a long-term plan to keep the partnership in place. The House has scheduled a vote on the bill in committee this week.

The Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership is an integrated water management plan, meaning multiple stakeholders and multiple tools such as water banks are used to employ greater control and flexibility at the local level.

A similar integrated plan went into place in the Yakima River Basin beginning in 2013. Years of litigation and droughts moved stakeholders to develop a collaborative local body that combined the seven elements of water management: irrigation infrastructure, fish passage, surface water storage, groundwater storage, fish habitat, conservation and water banking.

This locally-focused, collaborative approach is already winning favor among local leaders. Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13) recalls the work beginning not long after being first elected to the House after seeing the progress in Walla Walla.

“There were concerns that what we would be doing would favor one group or another, but there’s been a careful effort to make sure we don’t tip the canoe one way or the other,” said Warnick. “It’s a huge undertaking, but it proves that it can be done.”

Sen. Maureen Walsh (R-16), primary sponsor of SB 5352, pointed to the “Walla Walla way” when asked about the success of the program.

“The basic premise is making sure you have a recognition of all the involved parties and bringing them all to the table,” said Walsh. “By making sure everyone has a voice at the table about how to best manage those resources, you can get strong buy-in and come up with a plan that works.”

The plan began with a pilot program authorized by the legislature in 2009 to collaborate on water management and put tools in place that can balance competing needs, particularly when droughts come or water levels threaten fish populations.

A group of local stakeholders came together to form the partnership under the leadership of former Rep. William A. Grant, a long-time Walla Walla politician whose name now graces the Walla Walla Community College Water and Environment Center.

Walsh credits the “small town” community focus that guided this cooperative approach to the strong position it holds today.

“I think the strategy they’ve employed in this has been very beneficial and has got us moving forward instead of fighting conflicting views,” said Walsh. “I also think the Department of Ecology saw local folks doing good work and knew they ought to reward that.”

The partnership was developed in cooperation with the state Department of Ecology which granted the nine-member board leeway to make decisions locally to meet the right balance among agriculture, tribal interests, fish and a growing local community.

The Senate bill would extend the pilot program for two years to 2021 during which time the program would undergo financial and performance audits to help inform the next step: a 30-year plan to ensconce the “Walla Walla way” in the region’s water management for the long term.

However, these local success stories do not change the fact that water will continue to be one of the most contentious issues facing the state. Some policymakers are taking a statewide look at how water is managed in order to head off growing pressures on water supply.

“Water is the next oil, I think,” said Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-15). “My concern is agriculture will no longer be the highest and best use of water and the powers-that-be will want to take that water and use it for bigger cities and suburbs.”

This year, Honeyford introduced a large-scale water plan to provide reliable funding for the four critical areas of need for water projects in Washington: water supply, flood control, fish barriers and stormwater.

Rather than creating a new agency, Honeyford’s plan injects additional funding into locally-focused agencies that are already in place and functioning well in the four areas of need. Currently, water projects account for approximately $350 million of the capital budget each biennium. Honeyford’s plan, SB 5136, would increase that to $500 million each biennium, capped at $5 billion over 20 years.

Committee leaders voiced concerns that debt capacity might be strained.

“To me it seems to be common sense to adopt this type of program because the whole state benefits,” said Honeyford.

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