By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
The history of the human race is writ in water. Where there is no water, we cannot thrive. Great civilizations spring up around water, others die out when their sources of water become unreliable. Wars have been fought over water, and in a changing climate, water wars are likely to become commonplace. We are who we are because of water, or the lack thereof.
“Water is the meaning of all life,” says Travis Sproed. He’s a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, whose people have depended on the waters of the Walla Walla Basin for over 10,000 years.
Because water is life, it’s the Blue Mountains that make our life in this region possible. The mountains are the birthplace of the Walla Walla, Touchet, and Umatilla rivers, and of Mill Creek, all of which eventually find their way to the Columbia. These waters bring us life as we know it today, and remind us of life as it once was.
Chuush, as those who lived here first call it, water. It enters our lives in two ways: as túxtux, rain, or as púuy, snow. To city-dwellers rain and snow aren’t very different, it’s mostly a matter of degrees of inconvenience. But to those who farm and fish, hunt and gather, the form that water takes makes all the difference.
It’s rainfall that sprouts the seeds, greens the fields and gardens, replenishes the aquifers, and helps young fish find their way to the sea. And if all goes well, it’s the snow pack, melting in summer’s heat, that waters the crops and fills the rivers and streams so that salmon and other fish can return to spawn.
But water is often in short supply, and so there are numerous agencies and organizations working to ensure that people, farms, and fish get all the water they need, when they need it. And because there are many interest groups, all speaking up for their own water needs, cooperation among them is not just nice to have. It’s a necessity.
The William A. Grant Water and Environmental Center (WEC) at Walla Walla Community College was purpose-built to encourage that cooperation.
Its story began in 1977, when WWCC implemented an irrigation technology program, training students to install and maintain center pivots, a water-conserving form of irrigation.
Then, in 1996, there was a great flood in the Walla Walla Valley. “It devastated our streams, rivers, and riparian areas,” says Jerry Anhorn, dean of workforce programs at WWCC. “We had stream banks that were ripped bare, and former gravel bars that were scoured down to bedrock, fields that lost all of their top soil.”
In 1998 the Walla Walla County Conservation District was working to restore agricultural lands and habitats that had been lost in the floods. In addition, the Endangered Species Act necessitated addressing the salmon, steelhead, chinook, and bullhead trout runs in local waters.
The conservation district obtained a grant from the local Salmon Recovery Funding Board to meet the need for protective fish screens on pump intakes. WWCC students began helping farmers install fish screens, being paid with those grant dollars.
“That work really opened our eyes,” recalls Anhorn. “We realized that we had the potential to be a comprehensive water management program.”
“We saw that if we could educate local farmers about irrigation and water conservation we’d get more water in the streams,” he continues. ”We were able to help farmers re-design their irrigation systems and go from 35% efficiency to 85% efficiency, and all that water savings went back into the streams.”
Much work was done in partnership with federal and state agencies, the Confederated Tribes, and local irrigation districts. In 2000 the Gardena Farms Irrigation District and the Tribes signed an agreement in which Gardena Farms, the Basin’s largest water user, agreed to voluntarily return a substantial amount of water to the Walla Walla River for the benefit of the downstream flows and to avoid action by federal agencies.
Following on this success, the Walla Walla Watershed Alliance approached WWCC, looking for a place for this partnership work to be housed. With the help of State Representative Bill Grant and the federal Economic Development Administration the group got funding to build the WEC as a state resource to solve water and environmental problems. The initial building was completed in 2007, with a major expansion in 2011.
WWCC still offers a degree in irrigation management, and has added degrees in watershed management, water resources management, earth sciences, environmental and ecosystem sciences, forestry, and wildlife ecology and conservation sciences. All of the programs provide hands-on experience for the students.
“The past few years our summer interns have been helping place and collect UNIBEST’s resin technology monitoring systems along Mill Creek,” says Dave Stockdale, director of the WEC. “The sampling has been from upper Mill Creek continuing down through the city, and the data is helping to identify stretches where pollutants may be entering the system.”
The WEC is also home to a number of cooperating organizations. These are fisheries programs of the Confederated Tribes, the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership, the Washington Department of Ecology’s Watermaster, the Sustainable Living Center, and UNIBEST International.
Their co-location in a single facility fosters the spirit of collaboration, and the sharing of knowledge helps them work toward their common goal of ensuring that people, farms, and fish all get their fair share of clean water.
It’s that notion of fair share that makes Eric Hartwig’s job nearly impossible. He’s the Watermaster for Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin counties, although the Walla Walla basin spans both Washington and Oregon. The problem is that there’s just not enough water.
“This basin is over-appropriated,“ he explains. “We have given out a lot more water rights in this basin than there is water to meet them, which is why the river dries up every year, and why our aquifers are declining.”
Under Washington law, which allocates water according to the “first in time, first in right” principle, Hartwig’s first responsibility is to the holders of senior water rights. After that he must juggle the water requirements of those with junior rights, the need to keep sufficient stream flows to maintain fish populations, and the need to keep the underground aquifers fully charged.
Conditions this year are posing a challenge, and Hartwig is already notifying water users about the potential for water curtailment this summer. The basin’s snowpack is well under the normal level for this time of year, although rainfall has been above normal. “That’s good for aquifer recharge, and groundwater users, but farmers who are dependent on streamflow are going to be hurting if the snowpack doesn’t increase,” Hartwig says.
There’s a further complication. Washington and Oregon laws differ with regard to streamflow protection. So stakeholders on both sides of the state line are working to agree on how best to get the river flowing so fish have enough water to swim.
Enter the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership, which is the only program of its kind in the state. Chris Hyland, the Partnership’s executive director, describes its inception.
“The Partnership was formed in 2009 as a pilot program by the state legislature. There were water wars in the early 2000s which hit really big flashpoints in the Methow basin, the upper Columbia, and the Klamath basin in southern Oregon. The conflict between fish, agriculture, and water had gotten so big in those basins that fish were dying because they weren’t getting enough water, and then the pendulum would swing in the opposite direction and water diversions to agriculture were getting cut off and crops were dying in the field. It was becoming very adversarial.”
Hyland continues: “The Tribes, the agriculture community, and the City of Walla Walla saw what was happening and stepped up, looking for a better way to manage water. They approached Olympia and asked for the opportunity to offer options on the control of water locally.”
The legislature agreed, and established a 10-year pilot program. The law enacted to establish the Partnership states that it: “may acquire, purchase, hold, lease, manage, occupy, and sell real and personal property, including water rights, or any interest in water rights.”
Participation in the program is voluntary. The Partnership has no regulatory authority, but is allowed to do things that the Department of Ecology can’t. Using a principle of “flow from flexibility,” 130 water banking agreements and six Local Water Plans give farmers more flexibility with water use than state law otherwise allows. That flexibility can include being allowed to change their point of diversion from surface to ground water and vice versa, and to change the place and time of year that the water is used. In turn, farmers are asked to give up some of their water to instream flow for fish.
“The state has water rights “held in trust” for the fish,” says Hyland. “But there’s not a lot of that throughout our basin.”
When we speak of water for the fish, we first think of the salmon that we love to eat. “But please advocate for the lamprey and the freshwater mussels” begs Alexa Maine, a Tribal fisheries biologist. Both are important animals with declining populations.
“They contribute their ecosystem services by keeping the water clean, and cycling nutrients through the system, which are in turn eaten by insects, which are then eaten by the juvenile salmonids,” she explains.
Maine was hired in 2013 to set up a one-of-a-kind fish propagation laboratory at the WEC, and started artificially propagating siwáala, mussels and k’suyas, lamprey.
“Historically these mussels were a food source, mainly in times of starvation,” she explains. “They are the ‘liver of the river,’ so they’re not very good to eat because of the pollutants they filter from the water. But they have a huge importance in the ecosystem.”
The Pacific lamprey is a very primitive eel-like fish, thought to be about 450 million years old. Anadromous like the salmonids, they spend a large part of their lives in the ocean, returning to fresh water to spawn.
“Lamprey are traditionally a subsistence food source, and they have ceremonial value,” says Maine. “But the only place the Tribes can exercise their right to harvest lamprey currently is on the coast, at Willamette Falls, because that’s the only sustainable population that still exists.”
“We’ve seen huge declines,” she laments, “mainly because of passage issues at the Bonneville and McNary dams. The Tribes have come up with special lamprey ladders, so they can climb the almost vertical walls of the dams to get upstream. Still, very few survive.”
Travis Sproed is in the business of fish survival. Working at the WEC as a fisheries technician for the Tribal Department of Natural Resources, he’s also a WWCC student, halfway through his degree in Watershed Management.
He’s 25, and grew up in the Umatilla Reservation community of Mission. After graduating from Pendleton High School he decided to dedicate his life to núsux, salmon.
“I come from a large and close family that’s very traditional,” he says. “Growing up they always took me hunting and fishing, and I heard my elders talking about our precious First Foods: salmon, deer elk, roots and berries. That’s what I grew up eating, so I developed those values early on in life, and I want to keep that tradition alive and pass it down to my children one day. That’s why I took this job, to help re-introduce the salmon population back into the Walla Walla River.”
His work includes collecting fish and chipping them for tracking, and doing spawning ground surveys by walking in the river and looking for redds, where the salmon spawn. He also does fish salvaging, re-locating fish from irrigation ditches that are de-watered, and video enumeration, counting every fish that swims upstream or downstream past the Nursery Bridge Dam.
Sproed describes the pre-spawn surveys he performs near Touchet: “We snorkel to find fish that have been trapped when the water levels go down and temperatures go up. We net them and transport them to the cold, clean water at Harris Park, which is their spawning ground.”
“I do this work to protect and preserve our First Foods,” he adds. “And for my Tribe, to keep the traditions and culture of my ancestors and elders alive.”
Tradition and culture, fish and farms, science and technology, the Water and Environmental Center nurtures them all, so that all who live in the Walla Walla Basin may survive and thrive.