Bipartisan Support for Renewing Irrigation Act

Bipartisan Support for Renewing Irrigation Act

By Terry Gildea
Oregon Public Broadcasting
November 11, 2006


Northwest farmers and conservationists are asking Congress to reauthorize a program that irrigates crops while protecting fish. Oregon Senators Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith are leading a bi­partisan effort to pass a bill that sustains the program through the year 2012. From Capitol Hill, Terry Gildea reports. ­­­­­­­­­­­


Most farmers in the Pacific Northwest rely on irrigation pipelines and canals to water their crops. The water  from major rivers like the Columbia and the Willamette is channeled into thousands of diversions that lead to farmers’ fields. But sometimes steelhead, trout and other fish can get stranded in the diversions. And when they do they often die.

Gordon Smith: “Farmers and fish have one thing in common ­­ neither can live without water.”

Republican Gordon Smith helped pass the Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act, or FRIMA, in
2000. It provides money to build screens and fish passage ways inside irrigation diversions. He says the program is worth the taxpayer dollars.

Gordon Smith: “The federal government has a role to play and part of that is helping farmers with fish
screens that allow them to irrigate and allows the fish to live.”

Under the original legislation, money was distributed through the US Fish and Wildlife Service to build fish
screens and ladders on selected diversions. The program is now up for reauthorization, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are fighting for it. Senator Ron Wyden says it’s the best solution he knows of.

Ron Wyden: “What’s happened in the past is we’ve spent tons of money, literally millions and millions of
dollars, on alternative kinds of approaches. Something like this can involve people across the political spectrum, it’s locally driven and that’s why it’s got such strong support.”

Wyden and Smith are leading the charge for Oregon, with Washington Democrat Patty Murray and Idaho
Republican Larry Craig signed on as co­sponsors. Even Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski expressed his
support in a letter to the Senate Energy Committee.

The program has also forged ties between farmers and conservationists. Marc Thalacker is a member of the Oregon Water Rights Congress, a group that lobbies for irrigation around the state. He says no one wants to see fish get trapped in diversions.

Marc Thalacker: “It has been a very successful program and if we leave all these diversions unscreened ­­ a lot of fish will perish, there will be litigation, and regulation.”

If the program is reauthorized, funding it will remain an issue. The original bill called for $25 million to be
allocated each year, but Congress only appropriated between $3 million and $6 million per year. The new
bill only asks for a maximum of $5 million per year ­­ sending the message that participants should be able
to do more with less. The costs are divided equally between the state and federal governments.

Another provision of the new bill lets the Bonneville Power Administration kick in some additional money.
Thalacker says the program needs more support from the Bush Administration.

Marc Thalacker: “We have been disappointed that the administration, through the US Fish and Wildlife
service has not requested funding for the FRIMA program in any of the five years since it was authorized.”

John DeVoe is executive director of WaterWatch, a Portland ­based conservation group dedicated to
preserving river habitat. He says the program could do much more to protect native fish species.

John DeVoe: “We really need more money to do the job and we need to get a handle on these 55­plus
thousand diversions that currently have no screening and typically aren’t required to be screened. But you
start with what you can ­­ you take what steps you can and you move forward from there.”

Despite struggles to properly fund FRIMA, the program is well on its way to being reauthorized through the year 2012. Wyden and Smith hope to have the bill passed by the Senate before the end of the year.