The Walla Walla watershed supports critical farming, endangered species habitat and tourism in both Washington and Oregon. Yet more people have legal rights to the water than actual water exists. In the early 2000s, faced with legal issues from federal regulators about endangered fish, people in Washington began working together on water conservation. This led to the development of a new management model. The Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership was created in 2009. This 10-year pilot allowed a locally focused, collaborative approach to managing the Washington side of the watershed. The statute allowed it to operate without the Department of Ecology’s usual regulatory oversight.
The pilot was scheduled to sunset in 2019, but the Legislature extended it to 2021. This allowed time for financial and performance audits. It also gave participants time to determine how best to manage water in the region going forward. We designed this performance audit to assess the success of the water management pilot’s efforts over its 10-year tenure.
The audit’s key results fall into five main areas:
The Partnership did not explicitly identify improving streamflow as a core goal despite
clear statutory intent, and board members agree that streamflow did not improve
The Partnership met most statutory requirements, but did not create and use
an accountability framework that could have helped it evaluate and adapt its activities
to ensure success
The Partnership lacked sufficient funds to implement strategies necessary to improve
streamflow, but failed to fully exercise its authority to pursue additional revenue
Returning management of the Walla Walla watershed to Ecology could offer better
access to funding for needed infrastructure projects
Significant streamflow improvements in the Walla Walla watershed require greater cooperation between Washington and Oregon
In the early 2000s, faced with legal issues from federal regulators, people in the area began working together on water conservation. This in turn led to a new management model. Codified in 2009 (RCW 90.92), the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership (Partnership) was originally a 10-year pilot. It allowed water management through a locally focused, collaborative approach without Ecology’s usual regulatory oversight. The Partnership is governed by a nine-member Board of Directors comprising varying interests who volunteer their time.
Although the Legislature created the water management pilot to improve streamflow in the Walla Walla watershed’s waterways, the Partnership board’s initial strategic plan only cited it in connection with establishing local water plans. In its 2018 report to the Legislature, the Partnership acknowledged streamflow did not improve, but thought the pilot succeeded in bringing diverse interests to the table. Our statistical analysis also suggests that streamflow did not change, and similar statistical models could be used to help evaluate future efforts.
Incomplete compliance with statute
The Partnership complied with most aspects of the law in creating and running the pilot, but did not include required performance measures in local water plans. An accountability framework that includes data, performance measures and targets allows an organization to understand and respond to its challenges, helping it avoid both the inefficient use of its resources and ineffective activities.
However, the pilot lacked data, performance measures and targets related to streamflow, preventing the Partnership from assessing the success of its strategies. Water management organizations in Yakima, Oregon and California offer examples of active performance management.
When asked, Board members cited the lack of funding as a primary barrier to the Partnership’s success. However, the Partnership did not fully use its authority to raise funds through fees and grant applications. As a consequence of its limited funds, the Partnership lacked sufficient staffing to acquire significant grants and was unable to pay for its key streamflow enhancement strategies.
By contrast, water management organizations in Yakima, Oregon and California aggressively pursue funding beyond that provided by their respective states.
Re-engaging with Ecology
The watershed needs infrastructure improvements that are beyond the current Partnership’s capacity. Ecology has access to greater financial resources to support infrastructure projects. Furthermore, Ecology has worked successfully with other regions to develop cooperative projects that engage local communities and stakeholders in water management issues.
For this reason, we recommend allowing the pilot to sunset and returning the responsibility for water management in the Walla Walla watershed to Ecology. The state could do this while maintaining the benefits of the Partnership in the form of an advisory board that includes current membership. Ecology could then follow a watershed management model similar to that employed in the Yakima watershed, where streamflow has measurably improved.
The volume of water in the Walla Walla River on Washington’s side depends largely on the amount of water that crosses the state line from the river’s source in Oregon. Oregon is not required to send any minimum amount of
water across the state line. Oregon and Washington currently lack a formal agreement to collaborate in the Walla Walla watershed, but an interstate compact could help them work together to improve and protect streamflow.
Because water supply in the Walla Walla watershed is so dependent on actions taken upstream in Oregon, any real solution to streamflow will have to involve cooperation across state lines. For that reason, we recommend the Governor open discussion with state leadership in Oregon to form an interstate compact that can address water management in the watershed.
We made a series of recommendations to the Legislature and the Governor to address the future of the water management pilot in Walla Walla, and to help ensure adequate available water for the region’s future. We recommend allowing the pilot to expire and returning leadership of water management to Ecology, as it was prior to the pilot. We recommend the board members continue to inform water use decisions in an advisory role, and work with Ecology to finalize a long-term plan for the region. We also recommend the Governor pursue a bi-state compact with Oregon to collaborate on water management issues in the Walla Walla watershed, which serves both states.