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Despite Majority Support

WRIA board votes to reject grant for local water study

It's not every day that an organization turns down a grant -- especially one for $100,000.

Yet on Aug. 28, members of the local Watershed Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) did just that. The 27-member WRIA committee voted to reject a $100,000 grant from the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) that would have gone to pay for a study of "in-stream water flows" in the watershed.

At last week's meeting, held in the White Salmon Valley Community Library, the vote was 11-8 to accept the $100,000 grant, with three members abstaining. However, the board's bylaws require an 80 percent supermajority for approval, and as a result the grant was rejected.

The committee applied for the grant last December.

Representatives voting in favor of accepting the grant were: John Granholm (representing the city of Stevenson), Jim Jans (city of White Salmon), Terry Schmid (irrigator interests), Jeff Breckel (Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board), Sherry Penney (Snowden Community Council), Monte Pearson (Trout Lake Community Council), Ed LaMotte (Underwood Community Council), Katherine Skinner (Underwood Conservation District), Steve Stampfli (White Salmon Watershed Management Committee), Dan Gunderson (Wind River Watershed Council), and Lee Carlson (Yakama Nation).

Those voting to reject DOE's grant were: Jon Cole (timber interests), Bob Wittenburg (Skamania Public Utility District), Bill Anderson (recreation interests), Jim Fritchey (mining interests), Ken Burrill (Husum/BZ Community Council), Curt Dreyer (Klickitat County), Dan Frey (cattlemen interests), and Kelley Kreps (agriculture interests).

"We were awarded the grant, and offered $100,000 to do the work," said Charly Boyd, coordinator of the watershed committee. "But there was a concern in that some felt we would need to set in-stream flows and we were not ready to set in-stream flows."

The WRIA group, which meets monthly, is charged with developing a watershed plan for the local region that consists of a water inventory assessment and setting goals and objectives for water resource management and development.

A plan must be in place by 2005.

"We have broad goals," Boyd explained. "Development of a watershed plan that meets the long-term needs of the community, including managing water quality and quantity; enhances the economy; and helps provide wildlife habitat."

According to Boyd, the WRIA covers an area from Rock Creek in the Stevenson area east to Catherine, Major, and Jewett creeks in Klickitat County. It covers roughly 130,000 acres.

Some members felt that accepting the money from DOE would mean the WRIA board would then have to set in-stream water flow rates, thereby launching a potentially convoluted regulatory rulemaking process.

One of those who voted against the grant said it was partly a result of the failure of DOE to explain what would be required.

"What is meant by `in-stream flows'? The words I've been hearing from DOE representatives are not specific enough for my liking," said Bob Wittenburg, a voting representative from the Skamania Public Utility District. "I do not know what `in-stream flows' means. I've heard these terms repeatedly: `minimum in-stream flow' and `optimal in-stream flows' for protection of salmon. Those are entirely different, but in the DOE's mind they seemed to be interchangeable."

Wittenburg said he was concerned that in-stream flows needed to be set at an "optimal" level for fish. If that were the case, anything less could be in violation.

"The grant application says we want this money to set in-stream flows. I'm not going to set that rule," he explained.

"A lot of people were in favor of having the assessment work done, but the catch of having to set a number [for in-stream flows] seemed to get in the way," said Boyd, an employee of the Skamania County Planning Department. "I'm not disappointed in the outcome. We had a very good discussion about it."

Not everyone was content with the result of the vote, however. One of the members who voted in favor of accepting the grant said he thought it was unwise to turn down the money for the study.

"I have a hard time understanding the `No' vote," said Monte Pearson, a representative from the Trout Lake Community Council. "State law has mandated that in-stream flows be done, and it will be done. It's better to have a citizens' group that represents diverse interests in the community doing the work."

Pearson added that he was disappointed that Klickitat County, which was one of the originators of the watershed planning group, appeared to be changing the rules of the game.

In an Aug. 15 letter to the WRIA committee, Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck wrote that the county does not want in-stream flows included in the watershed planning process.

"We believe establishment of in-stream flows is a separate function that should occur after the plan is completed, reviewed by the public, and approved ... Klickitat County does not support in-stream flows as an element of watershed planning," Struck wrote. "If the Planning Unit proposes a watershed plan that include recommendations for in-stream flows for the White Salmon River, Klickitat County may reject the plan."

On Aug. 5, the Skamania County Public Utility District Commission unanimously passed a resolution raising concerns similar to those expressed in Struck's letter. The PUD resolution also suggested that the DOE could do a better job than local citizens and stakeholders could.

" ... Establishment of in-stream flows is akin to rule-making, which should occur after the aforementioned plan is completed, requires much thought, time, and study, and is better suited for the Department of Ecology ... Skamania County hereby admonishes WRIA to not set in-stream flows, and declares that if in-stream flows are set ... Skamania PUD may reject the plan," the PUD resolution stated.

"I guess what was a little hard to swallow is that we've had a committee working for over a year. Now we get to the proposal stage, then we get this letter saying, `No, we don't want you to work on that,'" Pearson said. "In-stream flows are so important to the plan. We should be working in good faith that what they originally told us still holds true, and we could work without that kind of hammer over our heads -- that if they don't like what we do, they'll pull the plug."

Mary Ann Duncan-Cole, city administrator for the city of Stevenson and member of the WRIA planning group, noted that a decision was made in February 2001 to include in-stream flows as part of the WRIA's planning goals.

"We were hoping that minimally the process would establish and agree on what kinds of flows were present in each stream of interest ... and what our collective statement to DOE would be in setting some minimal priorities," Cole wrote in an Aug. 13 memorandum to the Skamania County Board of Commissioners. "We understand how politically charged this last item can be, but felt that the amount of information gathered and community understanding that could be gained working as a group would be invaluable. We are not in a position to argue that the process would protect the decision from legal challenge; but certainly some consensus from the community may protect us from the rich client with the clever attorney protecting very special interests."

Skamania County Commissioner Al McKee abstained from the vote on whether to accept or reject the $100,000 grant.

Cole said she was worried that failure to do the in-stream flow surveys could delay granting of new water rights.

"Both DOE and DOH have warned that the application process for new water use permits is now a very lengthy process that will require a certain level of information and research," Cole explained in her memo. "Given the huge numbers of pending applications, applications with in-stream flows completed will be dealt with much more quickly than applications lacking this basic data."

Boyd said there was no way to know whether any state grants would be available in the future.

"There is no guarantee money will be there in the future. It depends on the Legislature," Boyd said. "Now that we've turned it down, that money will be made available to someone else. Other watershed management areas will get that money."

WRIA meetings are open to the public. The next meeting is Sept. 25, at the White Salmon Community Library, from 6 p.m.-8 p.m.

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