Flanked by lawmakers from Eastern and Central Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Thursday signed into law a bill that promises to do what people east of the Cascades have been trying to do for decades: find more water.
"Never did I dream that we would be standing here with this success, united as one Washington, for the economic future of the eastern part of the state and the preservation of salmon and our natural resources," Gregoire said.
The bill will be backed with $210 million to study the river system and look for natural depressions, canyons and other places to store river water during the rainy months. Of that "new water," two-thirds would go to growers, one-third to streams for fish. Some environmentalists, however, are unhappy with the sweeping proposal, saying they fear that large storage projects will inundate critical habitat.
Nonetheless, after years of fighting to a standstill over proposed changes to the state's water policy, lawmakers on Thursday called the bill a harbinger of a new spirit of east-west cooperation. One lawmaker compared the bill to the falling of the Berlin Wall. Others embraced.
Standing quietly on one side of the room was former Gov. Gary Locke, who spent years pushing unsuccessfully for a similar, sweeping "Columbia River Initiative" that never got off the ground.
Standing nearby was Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, who showed up at the bill signing toting an 8 1/2 foot tall blue stick with a 3-inch green stripe painted at the top. Morton's been toting this stick around, Moses-like, for much of the session. It's 100 inches long, and the thin green stripe, he tells everyone, represents the 3 percent of Columbia River water that it used by humans. Passing the bill, Morton said, was one of the thrills of his life. He ended up handing off the stick to Gregoire, who gamely stood there for a while with it, then discreetly passed it to a staffer.