DON C. BRUNELL
Just a few years ago, another major water war was brewing on the Little Walla Walla River. Rather than farmers and ranchers fighting over water for crops or cattle, it was shaping up to be a battle between the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and orchardists over water for fish or apples.
Anxious to avoid the consequences from the listing of salmon, steelhead and bull trout under the Endangered Species Act, some forward thinkers formed the Walla Walla Watershed Alliance to solve the problem of who gets water and when.
The Little Walla Walla River flows from the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon and crosses the state line just west of Walla Walla, joining Mill Creek to form the Walla Walla River.
When Lewis and Clark explored the Walla Walla drainage on their return trip to St. Louis in 1806, salmon and steelhead runs abounded in the rivers and their tributaries. But as farmers and ranchers settled in the area, water was diverted for crops, and today the drainage is covered with orchards of Fuji apples, fields of Walla Walla sweet onions, world-class wine grape vineyards, rolling golden hills of grain and pastures of livestock.
The bottom line is, until a couple of years ago, salmon and steelhead runs were threatened because there wasn't enough water flowing to allow the fish to migrate to and from the ocean.
But Walla Walla had a couple of things going for it. First, the Umatilla Tribe and irrigators realized they were in a no-win situation if they drew a line in the sand and hired an army of lawyers to fight it out in court. The battle would be lengthy and costly, and in the meantime, more fish runs would be depleted.
Second, the Umatillas were successfully working on cooperative projects on the Umatilla River just over the hills from the Little Walla Walla and spring Chinook were returning to the river after a 70-year absence.
Third, Walla Walla is home to Nelson Irrigation Corp., a forward thinking company recognized worldwide for its innovative water-conserving lawn and agriculture sprinkler systems. The company had water conservation technology and was committed to using its knowledge and techniques in finding solutions to the water problems.
Finally, apple growers like Ron Brown in neighboring Milton-Freewater, Ore. reached out to the Umatilla Tribe and formed partnerships.
Today, the Walla Walla Watershed Alliance has completed fish passage projects and developed systems to recharge underground aquifers. By recharging nature's underground water system, natural springs are starting to flow again, helping to feed the Little Walla Walla River when it needs water most for fish.
While all the elements for success are in place, the Alliance still has to weave its way through the maze of local, state and federal regulations and find funds to continue its work. No doubt it will, because the spirit of cooperation and the will to succeed, evident in Walla Walla, is contagious. It is an example for us all.
Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.