A team of 20 is working to find a way to get more water for agriculture from the Columbia River while also providing environmental benefits.

The task seems daunting, but the group of local agriculturists, educators, conservation groups, and federal and state agencies started off saying they’re ready to roll up their sleeves.

Goals include establishing a clear direction for short and long-term projects affecting water resources in Eastern Oregon, while also determining the environmental and economic benefits and ensuring the ideas are technically, legally and financially feasible, said Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy advisor.

Kitzhaber designated the Columbia River-Umatilla Solutions Task Force as an Oregon Solutions project after visiting Umatilla and Morrow Counties in early April. Oregon Solutions provides staff support and guidance to keep projects on track. About 25 people outside the task force attended the Monday meeting at the Port of Morrow.

“This is the first time to my knowledge that we have had a gathering like this,” said Dennis Doherty, co-convenor and Umatilla County commissioner.

Whitman is the second co-convenor and Steve Greenwood, Oregon Solutions deputy director, round out the coordinators of the project.

“Governor Kitzhaber was out here a couple months ago and met with a smaller group about the development of in-stream and out-of-stream water resources,” Whitman said. “This is a collaborative process for us to reach a concensus idea.”

Director Phil Ward of the Oregon Water Resources Department spelled out how much water Oregon diverts from the Columbia River and why getting more is a problem.

During the growing season, Oregon does not issue users, like irrigators or ports, new water rights from the Columbia if they cannot replace the water removed from the river, Ward said. That way, the state maintains river flows mandated by the federal government to protect endangered and threatened fish, like salmon.

Flows at the mouth of the river average about 192 million acre-feet per year, Ward said, and diversions from the mainstem and tributaries average 33 million acre-feet per year. Oregon diverts 5 million acre-feet, bringing the state share of diverted water to 15 percent. Washington gets 20.4 percent of diverted water, while Montana receives about 4 percent and Idaho 59.8 percent.

“There is no agreement that says who gets how much,” Ward said. “There have been 17 different attempts to compact the Columbia River system in Congress and none have come to fruition.”

The group plans to meet again July 26-27 and have projects established by mid-December to have the legislation or funding requests introduced in the 2013 state legislative session.

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