A Columbia River water exchange program to bring fish back to the Walla Walla River is getting support from the Milton-Freewater city council.

A letter indicating that support is now being drafted by city officials.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Army Corps of Engineers have worked for years on a plan to keep water in the Walla Walla for salmon, steelhead and bull trout. In the spring, the tribes decided on a plan to use Columbia River water for irrigators while keeping the water the irrigators would have used in the Walla Walla for fish.

Last month Chris Marks, a water policy analyst with the CTUIR came to the council asking for its support.

A council work session Monday determined the details of support to include in its letter.

The letter of support doesn't require any funding commitments, but Marks previously said it would be taken to Congress and other agencies to show support for the plan. The project has received similar letters from the Walla Walla Watershed Council and the CTUIR Board of Trustees.

The project will install a 35-mile-long pipeline and cost $292 million to build. The federal government will pay 56 percent - about $189.8 million - and the tribes and possibly other partners will pay the rest - about $102.2 million.

The council's list of concerns were:

? securing outside funding to cover the operation and maintenance cost for the project, and ensuring the city and irrigators wouldn't pay that cost;

? making sure Columbia River water doesn't spill into spring branches of rivers and streams;

? protecting flows all the way to the Columbia River confluence;

? ensuring irrigators keep their water rights.

Councilor Brad Humbert emphasized the water rights, which the council agreed to add. Humbert repeated Marks' statement that irrigators wouldn't lose existing water rights.

"As long as that is a fact, then I think I'm OK with the whole thing," he said.

Councilor Ed Chesnut, who is also a member of the watershed council, clarified how the irrigators will get the same amount of water from the Columbia they would have gotten from the Walla Walla.

"If it's July 15 and the date of your water right and the flow in the (Walla Walla) river says you get shut off if you were taking water out of the river, you will get shut off if you're on this system," Chesnut said. "The word 'exchange' is very important. It's a straight gallon-for-gallon exchange. If you were going to get delivered a gallon out of the Walla Walla, they'll deliver you a gallon with this pipeline."

Councilor Jeff Anliker saw an opportunity for overall increased recharge in the valley.

"We're pumping water from the Columbia, the guys in the orchards and the fields are using that, that's recharging," Anliker said. "The Walla Walla River is running full, it's recharging. You can be dumping twice as much water in the shallow aquifer."

Chesnut corrected him, noting even though irrigation water goes into the ground, trees and plants use a significant portion of it.

"But there will be more. Yeah, there will be more," Chesnut said.

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