By JESSE BURKHARDT
The city of White Salmon finally got the good news it has long been waiting for. On Jan. 27, the Washington Department of Ecology officially authorized the city's new water rights.
A portion of the Klickitat Public Utility District's (PUD) unused water right from the old Goldendale Aluminum plant on the Columbia River is being transferred to White Salmon.
The move will add 780 acre-feet to the city's water rights portfolio, giving the city access to a total of 1,468 acre-feet of water each year -- providing the city with the water it needs to grow into the future.
"We're going to more than double our recognized water rights," explained Mayor David Poucher. "We'll go from 688 acre feet of water to 1,468 water feet. That will cover the city's growth over an anticipated 20-year period."
According to the Washington Department of Ecology, an acre-foot of water represents the amount of water that would cover one acre of land at one foot deep. Each acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons.
The city has been working with the PUD for three years -- since March of 2008 -- in an effort to gain increased water rights.
"It's fantastic," Poucher said. "We have the slow sand filtration plant, and now we have our water rights. When we set a mission, the community is able to pull together and do things. It's a wonderful feeling. The slow sand filtering plant secured our source, and the water rights secures our right to use that source."
"The city should be in good hands for quite a few years," added City Administrator Pat Munyan.
The Department of Ecology worked closely with the city, the PUD, the Washington Department of Health, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Yakama Nation to minimize the impacts of the city's diversion of water from Buck Creek.
"All the stakeholders are in agreement," Poucher said.
Poucher offered a "pat on the back" for the many people and agencies investing in the project and providing support, and to the PUD in particular for transferring a portion of its water rights to White Salmon.
After the aluminum plant closed in 2003, the PUD had acquired the rights to the water and placed it into trust. The city recently entered into a water service agreement with the PUD that sets aside a portion of the former aluminum plant water to offset any impacts to the Columbia River associated with the new withdrawal.
"Without the Klickitat Public Utility District, we wouldn't be here," Poucher said. "And the Klickitat County Commissioners have been awesome in supporting us, as well as the governor -- she has been very helpful."
"It's been a long process," said Klickitat PUD Commissioner Randy Knowles. "It's amazing how many people were involved -- the governor and legislators and a host of local people. It was kind of a team effort. I'd also like to commend the Department of Ecology for coming through in the end. They work really hard at what they do, and it's a process people get frustrated with. But in the end, they were great."
The governor said she was gratified a solution to White Salmon's water troubles has been found.
"I want to congratulate all the parties for remaining committed to finding a creative path forward," said Gov. Christine Gregoire. "These kinds of partnerships and win-win outcomes are what we need to protect jobs and create new economic ventures."
Knowles said the city obtained a relatively small part of the PUD's aluminum plant water right, which totals about 15,000 acre-feet.
"We're hanging on to the rest of it, and looking to put that water right to use for other parts of the county," Knowles commented. "It's a hugely valuable water right."
Poucher said having more water will provide a huge boost to the city of White Salmon.
"This will help with home building and business expansion," Poucher said. "This is very good for the business climate in White Salmon, and now citizens can decide if they want to build. I think it's tremendously positive, and shows what happens when we get the city and state agencies saying, `OK, we have to solve the problem.'"
Washington Department of Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant agreed with Poucher's sentiments on reaching the historic agreement.
"This water paves the way for important growth in Klickitat County, and bolsters the viability of existing businesses in White Salmon -- while also protecting stream flows at crucial times of the year," said Sturdevant. "This shows yet again that if we work at it, we can balance water supplies across the needs of the economy, local communities, and fish -- if we value all of these needs rather than one at the expense of another."
Poucher added that citizens will see immediate benefits from having expanded water rights.
"We'll be able to water lawns as green as you want to this summer," Poucher said.
Munyan said being able to water again could serve to lower the fire danger in the community.
"The last few years the city has been extremely dry," Munyan said. "This will take our fire risk down tremendously."
Sturdevant pointed out that Buck Creek has important fish habitat value, and an important step in getting new water rights for the city was White Salmon's offer to divert less water from Aug. 1 through Oct. 31 each year to support the fish in Buck Creek in exchange for greater access at other times of the year. The city will rely more on its wells during the Aug. 1-Oct. 31 period.
Munyan explained that the new water rights for the city will be effective in 30 days -- barring an appeal.
He also noted that even with this water deal, the city would not halt its efforts to obtain more water to ensure the city could continue growing.
"Water is rapidly getting harder and harder to come by," Munyan said. "This is a victory for the city, but are we going to stop looking for additional water rights? No."