Gov. Chris Gregoire has signed a multi-million-dollar agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation that offers parched sections of Eastern Washington something that cities and farmers have sought for years.
"This is a tremendous milestone," Gregoire said, flanked by tribal leaders at a signing ceremony at the capitol.
"It's been a lot of work and many years, and here we are today," said Colville Tribal Chairman Mike Marchand.
In exchange for annual payments from the state, the Colvilles agreed to support the state's plan to annually tap up to 43 billion gallons more water from Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind the dam.
Richard Sherwood, chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, said that his tribe is likely to sign a similar document. There are still some legal details pending, he said, but added that the tribe and governor have an agreement in principal.
Pending legislative approval, the state would pay a total of $6 million annually to the two tribes. The water is intended for Moses Lake-area irrigators struggling with an aquifer plummeting 7 feet a year, as well as other farmers, Eastern Washington cities, and fish.
"Today's historic agreement ensures a water supply that sustains farming, supports growing communities and enhances our precious salmon resource," Gregoire said.
Some local water experts were less enthusiastic. While irrigators, cities and fish clearly need more water, the agreement is "a short-term Band-Aid for a long-term problem," said Andy Dunau, with the Spokane-based Lake Roosevelt Forum.
"Is this the end of water requests for Lake Roosevelt?" he said. "That's the unanswerable question."
Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said the group is opposed to drawing any more water from the reservoir. There's no extra now, she said. And government should have no obligation to bail out irrigators who've been draining reservoirs for decades, she said.
Gregoire said the cost of the agreement pales in comparison to the benefits to water users who have long needed new water supplies in as many as six counties. Loss of irrigation water in the area now served by the rapidly-dropping Odessa aquifer threatens $600 million a year in farm revenues and 7,500 jobs, she said.
Jay Manning, the head of the state Department of Ecology, said the agreements were the cheapest of several alternatives the state considered for freeing up more water in the area.
Grand Coulee Dam – which holds back the Columbia River waters that comprise Lake Roosevelt – inundated tribal rivers and uplands, said Richard Sherwood, chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. If signed, he said, the agreement "will provide major benefits downstream while helping the tribe to address some of the impacts from storage and use of that water on our lands," said Sherwood.
But Manning and Sherwood both stressed that the tribes are not selling their water. They simply agreed not to oppose the additional drawdown.
"I would see it as two sovereign governments recognizing each other's rights," said Sherwood. "I don't see it as selling the tribes' water. If I viewed it that way, I wouldn't want to be a part of it."
At most, Manning said, the lake level will drop by a foot at certain times of year.
Gregoire said she'll ask state lawmakers to approve the agreement as well as payments to the tribes. The Spokanes would get $2.25 million a year; the Colvilles would get $3.8 million the first year and $3.6 million thereafter.
The tribes will use the money to help mitigate damage to fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and cultural activities resulting from the release of the additional water from the reservoir. The money can also be used for economic development, which is what Marchand said the Colvilles are likely to do.
The water agreement is only the latest of a number of compacts Gov. Gregoire has signed with Indian tribes in the past three years. Among them: deals on tribal gas taxes, cigarettes taxes, and gambling.
The relationship between the state and tribes is much better than it used to be, Marchand said, as behind him Colville tribal members presented Gregoire with a blanket bearing the tribal seal.
"We used to meet in the Supreme Court all the time," he said, "and neither side was served very well."