Western U.S. foresees problems with waterWhen Ray Colbert wanted out after five decades of growing apples, his son didn’t want the farm in Washington’s rugged sagebrush just south of the Canadian border. No one else did either. So Colbert sold the last big piece of his operation, an 80-acre parcel, to a buyer far downstate who wanted what came with the land: water. State regulators signed off on the buyer’s request to transfer the water, that letting it flow hundreds of miles downriver to its new owners was good for fish and wouldn’t hurt anyone else’s water supply.
By: By Shannon Dininny, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
TONASKET, Wash. — When Ray Colbert wanted out after five decades of growing apples, his son didn’t want the farm in Washington’s rugged sagebrush just south of the Canadian border. No one else did either.
So Colbert sold the last big piece of his operation, an 80-acre parcel, to a buyer far downstate who wanted what came with the land: water. State regulators signed off on the buyer’s request to transfer the water, that letting it flow hundreds of miles downriver to its new owners was good for fish and wouldn’t hurt anyone else’s water supply.
But the sale flummoxed local officials who fear such deals will dry out their rural farming community. After all, if your town sits next to Canada and your water is transferred downriver, where do you turn to replace it?
“If this were to snowball and keep up, Oka-nogan County would literally dry up. It would dry up it’s economy, it’s agricultural production and everything else,” said state Sen. Bob Morton, a Republican whose rural district sprawls across remote northern Washington.
Moving water around the West is nothing new — it’s what enabled apples to sprout in sagebrush in the first place. In Northern California, river water is shipped south through a network of pipes to irrigate most of the country’s winter vegetables and keep faucets flowing in the Los Angeles area.
But the moves don’t come without dispute. Ranchers and conservationists have blasted a plan that would pump billions of gallons of water to Las Vegas, perhaps drying up a large swath of rural Nevada. More fights are likely as more farmers find they get a bigger payoff from selling their water than by growing crops.
Western water law allows water rights to be separated from land to feed booming cities or higher-value agriculture.
For Colbert, the decision wasn’t difficult.
“The Okanogan Valley’s a great place to live. I love it, but it’s a tough place to make a living,” Colbert said. “I’m so relieved to basically be out of these big orchards.”
Colbert’s water came from the Okanogan River, a tributary to the Columbia River. He understands the concerns of local officials; he shares them. But he also says his water right is his to do with as he pleases.
“It’s a property, like a truck or a cow, and you should have the right to do as you wish with it,” he said.
The buyer, Andy den Hoed, had been seeking water for his growing vineyards above the Columbia River in south-central Washington for years, with little success. He dismisses the notion that enough water will get transferred to make a big difference for farming communities.
“There’s about one in 100 farms that kept good enough records to transfer it,” den Hoed said. “It’s so hard to get water transferred that I don’t think the counties have to worry about it.”
Okanogan County Commissioner Mary Lou Peterson doesn’t want to take that chance.
“It may be starting here, but every other county in the north end of the state will be in the same boat, because the water goes south,” Peterson said. “We have nowhere else to go. We’re right up against Canada.”
The issue is less pronounced in Montana and North Dakota, about as far east as Western water law prevails, because most farmers there don’t irrigate. But agricultural land is still being retired to supply water to fast-growing communities.
In northwest Montana, officials are negotiating a water compact with the Blackfeet Indian Reservation that would allow the tribe to sell water out of the headwaters of the Missouri River to any place in the vast swath of the state that lies in the river’s basin.
“There’s no constraint where they can market that water to — hundreds and hundreds of miles,” said John Tubbs, administrator of the Montana Department of Natural Resources water re-sources division.
“We’re not seeing a lot of that in Montana, but we are seeing the effects of growth and the need to supply that growth with water,” he said.
Only a minimal amount of water has been transferred in Washington state’s Columbia River basin, and local communities always have the option to buy the water first and keep it at home, said Darryl Olsen of the Benton County Water Conservancy Board.
“The water wouldn’t go down here if there was somebody local up there who was going to purchase it,” he said.
Morton, the state senator, counters that local officials often don’t even know the water may be transferred. People who request a transfer may take the proposal before either board — where the water right is being employed or where it will be transferred.
“What are the chances that the people receiving it are going to say no?”‘ he asked. “Water’s a hot commodity.”
He expects that issue to go before lawmakers in the near future. In the meantime, the state Legislature this year approved spending $150,000 to explore the challenge of water rights being transferred downstream.
State regulators are supporting the study. They also volunteered to notify water boards where rights are being transferred away as a courtesy before ruling, said Tom Tebb of the state Department of Ecology.
“Should water be a market? It is in other states,” Tebb said. “It’s not uncommon for water to follow money.”
The questions, he said, are how much value property loses without water, what that does to a county, and if there is a tipping point where you can’t go back.
“We’re beginning to look at some of those questions and search for solutions,” he said.
Department of Ecology: http://www.ecy.wa.gov