Kitzhaber signs water deal for Eastern Oregon

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PORTLAND -- The decades-long tug-of-war between farmers and environmentalists in Eastern Oregon's Umatilla Basin eased Friday when they, along with tribal interests and government regulators, agreed to a "declaration of cooperation" on a handful of projects to increase irrigation water without hurting endangered salmon.

The deal signed Friday by Gov. John Kitzhaber and members of a taskforce comprising competing interest groups includes water storage projects that could divert more Columbia River water in the winter, which is less detrimental to fish than spring and summer withdrawals.

"There is a path forward that allows us to find solutions that balance both in-stream and out-of-stream uses of water," Kitzhaber said.

The rich farmland of the Umatilla Basin produces peas, potatoes, wheat, watermelon and other crops. Potentially valuable acres are left unused, however, because of insufficient water. The nearby Columbia River tempts farmers with water they can't use because it's targeted for hydroelectric power and salmon.

The projects that won a consensus include:

• Completing the Umatilla Basin aquifer recharge project, which would divert water from the river in the winter, when its flow is high, and store it underground for future use.

• Repairing the Wallowa Lake Dam, which is now in such poor condition that water levels in the lake have been reduced.

• Building a Juniper Canyon storage reservoir, estimated at almost 50,000 acre-feet of water, which would be pumped from the Columbia during the winter.