Managing Many Waters the Walla Walla Way

by: Posted on: May 20, 2012

Photo: Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership

By Cathy Schaeffer, Executive Director, Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership

Editor’s Note: An invaluable perspective on water management in the West! Read on to learn how local—cooperative—governance has empowered the Walla Walla basin to manage its water more wisely.


The Walla Walla River basin, a bi-state watershed spanning portions of southeast Washington and northeast Oregon, was named by the Cayuse Tribe as “many small waters” in reference to the plentiful springs, streams and rivers that define its landscape. But over the last two centuries expanded settlement and irrigated agriculture has contributed to dewatered streams, endangered salmon populations, and tension among water users, bringing the issue of water management to the forefront in the late 1990’s. In response, agricultural irrigators and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation joined river basin resource managers and conservation interests over the last decade to complete hundreds of projects to increase streamflow, reintroduce Chinook salmon, and modernize irrigation systems for efficiency. Through these projects, basin stakeholders cooperate to focus their efforts to optimize water resource use and introduce a new approach for managing water in the Walla Walla basin.

The cooperative approach employed by basin partners has received regional and national recognition as creating a new paradigm for sustainable resource management.  The Partnership has a nine-member board with representatives from local government, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, water right holders, environmental interests and citizens. The Partnership has local technical expertise appointed as members of its Water Resource Panel, and broad stakeholder representation appointed as members of its Policy Advisory Group. Through these local, cooperative water management successes, the “Walla Walla Way” has become a common description for how this community works together in problem solving. Building on this foundation of trust among stakeholders, a new pilot program in Washington State was created for managing water at the watershed scale in the Walla Walla valley. With local leadership, water users and Tribes work in shared governance with the state Department of Ecology. Legislatively authorized under RCW 90.92 as a one-of-a-kind local water board, the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership (Partnership) was launched in 2009 as a ten-year pilot program to manage water so that people, rivers, farms and fish can all continue to share this valuable resource long into the future.

The Partnership’s water management authority is designed to significantly contribute to the enhancement and restoration of streamflow, aquifers, and water quality to support salmon recovery. Premised on the concept of “Flow from Flexibility,” the Partnership’s local approach is intended to encourage water conservation by allowing flexibility in how water is withdrawn, transported and applied to help optimize out-of-stream uses. The innovative, voluntary nature of this program originates from the belief that the key to increasing streamflow for fish is for water users to be afforded greater flexibility beyond what conventional water management options can deliver. Through the voluntary development of site-specific Local Water Plans, water users are allowed flexibility in how they use their water to enhance stream conditions. With the unique authority to bank water rights, the Partnership may enter into non-use agreements with water right holders to leave water instream for environmental benefit and return it to the water right holder when the agreement ends. Partnership programs have enjoyed eager adoption by water right holders during the initial two years of the pilot, with a total of 66 water banking non-use agreements and three Local Water Plans executed by the close of 2011, depositing over 8,014 acre-feet annually of surface water and groundwater rights into the Partnership’s one-of-a-kind water bank.

The Partnership’s “Flow from Flexibility” water management programs are achieving success in enhancing stream conditions, encouraging water conservation, and protecting participants from relinquishing their water rights by offering flexibility and cooperation as the currency of innovation. Under State law, five or more years of successive non-use may trigger relinquishment of agricultural water rights. This can encourage people to use their water even if they don’t need to. The Partnership’s water bank changes all that.

With financial assistance from the Washington State Department of Ecology, Bonneville Power Administration, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Partnership is also facilitating paid transactions for instream trust water under the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program. This means entering into voluntary agreements to lease or purchase water rights so the water can remain in the streams and rivers to improve salmon habitat. In a related area of work, the Partnership is taking a lead role in working locally to balance the growing water needs of rural development with existing instream and out-of-stream water rights. This is done through administering a mitigation exchange for new domestic wells on the Washington side of the Walla Walla basin. Future activities will focus on expanding programs into new areas of the Partnership’s authority, building on the market-based and voluntary participation elements of current programs and preparing to facilitate local reallocation of water rights for other out-of-stream uses or on other property in the watershed.

The innovative approach to managing water in the Walla Walla basin explores uncharted territory in how local shared governance and new resource management tools can provide an environment for community members to join with water users, Tribes and stakeholders in developing water management solutions. Learning from the past and building on this innovative local approach, the Partnership is looking forward with a vision for the Walla Walla watershed that achieves and sustains a healthy river system where human and natural communities can thrive and flourish. For more information about the Partnership’s water management programs, visit the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership website at or contact Cathy Schaeffer, Executive Director, at or 509.524.5216.


P.S. from the Editor:

Check out Cathy’s Read the Dirt Contributor’s Page.

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