Looking upriver: What's next for the Walla Walla watershed?

Stakeholders invited to help plan how water is managed into the year 2050

A turtle sits on a floating plank of wood on a greenish pond.

A turtle floats on a pond near Walla Walla, Washington.

A Walla Walla River Basin users group is evolving from a pilot program into a partnership prepared to plan the next 30 years of watershed management.

Meeting the region’s water needs has been a decades-long challenge for this complex watershed that includes two states and involves farmers, communities and the Umatilla Tribe. The basin has struggled to keep sufficient flows in the river for fish while supporting an agricultural economy.

In October, stakeholders from Washington and Oregon will refocus and build on the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership to create a long-term water strategy. Ecology’s Office of Columbia River will lead the effort, in conjunction with the partnership and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

This new phase, dubbed Walla Walla Water 2050, enlists irrigators, conservationists and private citizens along with representatives from tribal, federal, state and local governments and agencies to map out the watershed’s future.

“We’re looking for people with an interest in the basin to attend the workshop and share insights on how Walla Walla Basin water should be managed to meet growing demands over the coming decades,” said Tom Tebb, director of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River.

Stakeholders may register to participate in the two-day strategic planning workshop that runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 3, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Oct. 4 at Walla Walla Community College, 500 Tausick Way in Walla Walla.

The first day of the workshop will include opening remarks by partnership leaders, as well as small group visioning exercises followed by a shared discussion. The groups will be divided into areas of interest, including recreation and tourism, fish and instream resources, agriculture, rural vitality and several others.

The second day will consist of a day one review, followed by fishbowl sessions to focus the elements, interests and outcomes that should be included in a strategic plan. A full agenda will be posted to our website prior to the workshop.

A history of collaboration

Over the last decade, the Walla Walla Management Partnership developed local water plans and water banking agreements that protect more than 20,500 acre-feet of water rights from “use it or lose it” relinquishment. The group also worked with stakeholders across the border, including Oregon’s Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council, to examine big-picture water resource issues and preserve stream flows at crucial times of the year.

Still, the projects have not adequately achieved streamflow goals, and aquifers continue to decline, according to a 2018 report to the Legislature.

A stream goes from bottom left of image to top right, grassy fields on either side.

The Walla Walla River runs through dozens of farms and communities.

“The pilot period has proven that although the partnership has done as much as possible with its current authority, that authority and structure have proven insufficient to address the complexity and magnitude of current and future water resource challenges,” the report stated.

This spring, the Legislature took the report’s recommendation and gave the partnership a two-year extension to collaborate with Ecology and develop the Walla Walla Water 2050 watershed plan. This effort begins with the two-day workshop, intended to kick-start a strategy for moving forward.

“We’ve been very successful implementing similar programs in other river basins. The Yakima Basin Integrated Water Management Plan is cited nationally as a model for how water management issues should be addressed,” Tebb said. “We’re hopeful to do the same in this important bi-state watershed.”

The planning process will result in a report that is due to the Legislature by November 2020, and a strategic plan that is due by June 2021.

Questions on the Oct. 3-4 workshop? Email Leigh Bedell or call 360-407-6017.