DNR Focused on Protecting Water Right Assets

irrigated cropsThe Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages more than 300 water right certificates and permits that it holds in addition to water right claims in many cases. These water rights are used primarily for irrigation on state trust lands leased for agriculture uses.

As stewards of these water rights, DNR is responsible to effectively manage these rights to produce revenue for public schools and other state trust beneficiaries. We also are responsible to protect these rights from relinquishment. DNR is moving toward using the Washington State Trust Water Rights program to protect these rights for future uses on state lands and to allow increased flexibility in water management on agriculture leases.

“The Washington State Trust Water Rights program provides a way to legally hold water rights for future uses without the water right relinquishing. Water is held in trust to benefit groundwater and instream flows, and other beneficial uses.” (Department of Ecology website, 2014)

irrigation system-Water rights can be held in trust permanently or for short periods of time as temporary donations. With the added ability to donate groundwater rights, as well as surface water rights, to the program, DNR gains flexibility and options for protecting water rights that rely exclusively on wells for withdrawing irrigation water. As an example of this flexibility, DNR can choose to donate its water rights, in whole or in part, to the Trust Water Rights program for a specified period of time when it anticipates using less water. By temporarily donating the water right to the program, DNR is able to protect the State’s water assets and, at the same time, provide benefits to surface water and groundwater resources.

The program is a particularly useful tool for DNR to consider in protecting its water rights during periods when irrigation infrastructure is under development, crop types and water demand are changing, or in other periods of transition that may reduce water use. For example, on one of DNR’s large agriculture leases a farm-scale transition of crop type and irrigation system was planned. During the development period, the old crop and irrigation infrastructure had to be removed and new system installed and crop planted. It took a considerable amount of time for the lessee and DNR to successfully complete the project. In the interim, DNR wanted to ensure that its water rights remained intact so the agency temporarily donated the water to the Trust Water Program to protect the water right during the project’s development. Once the project is completed or as the crops are incrementally planted, DNR will have the ability to remove the water from the Trust Water Rights program and begin using it again for irrigation.

Columbia Basin Project Greens Up Trust Lands for Revenue

The Columbia Basin Project is an example of how a large public investment into a tangible project can spur the growth of the nation’s economic wellbeing for generations to come.

Columbia Basin Project map

Columbia Basin Project map, courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation (CLICK image to enlarge)

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) participates in the Columbia Basin Project by providing leases to lessees who irrigate the lands primarily for agriculture within Adams, Franklin, and Grant counties. The project, which provides irrigation to 671,000 acres, is managed by three irrigation districts: the Quincy Columbia Irrigation District, the East Columbia Irrigation District, and the South Columbia Irrigation District.

It is DNR’s good fortune to have irrigated acres within the project’s area. Agricultural uses include crops such as grain, hay, beans, fruit, grapes, sugar beets, potatoes, sweet corn, seed and other specialty crops.

The ability to irrigate these lands is more evidence of how the nation’s investment in the Columbia Basin Project continues to benefit Washington’s K-12 education programs, as the majority of revenue produced by DNR through its agriculture leasing program supports the construction of public schools statewide.

A Short History of the Columbia Basin Project

The original vision of the Columbia Basin Project was much larger than what we see today. The Bureau of Reclamation’s history of the project notes:

In mid-April 1933, supporters of the project met with President Roosevelt to outline the project and recommend he allocate the $400,000,000 needed for construction. The President balked at the suggestion and suggested a smaller dam that could be enlarged at a later date. The President advised that the project be constructed in stages using relief money and encouraged them to seek the assistance of the Bureau of Reclamation in designing and building the dam. Supporters of the irrigation scheme were disappointed: a low dam could be used to generate power, but would not allow water to be pumped for irrigation. Still, the drive to get the dam built continued.”

Efforts to expand the Columbia Basic Project continue today, more than 80 years after its proposal.

The Columbia Basin Project (CBP) is located in east central Washington and currently serves about 671,000 acres, or just over 65 percent of the approximately 1 million acres originally authorized by Congress. Principal project features include Grand Coulee Dam, Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, and the Grand Coulee Powerplant Complex.

Happy 125th Birthday to Washington State Trust Lands

new high school in Ellensburg was built with aid of state trust land funds

In Fiscal Year 2013, DNR agricultural trust land leases grossed more than $20 million for Common School construction in Washington State. Recent projects include a new high school in Ellensburg.

This year, 2014, is the 125th anniversary of Washington’s joining the Union as the 42nd state. It’s a good time to reflect on the gift our state received from the federal government back in 1889: more than three million acres of trust lands – truly, a gift that keeps on giving!

Providing gifts of land to support institutions is a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages.

In the United States, as far back as 1785, every Section 16 in each township was reserved as a “school section” to provide funding and a central location for schools, so no child would have to travel too far to school.

As new states joined the union, Congress provided land grants to each state, with the western states granted large numbers of acres. The federal Enabling Act of 1889 granted Washington State lands in Section 16 and 36 of every township, except where that section was already settled or encumbered. In addition to designating that lands in those sections be managed to benefit common schools, the Act granted the State additional lands to be managed for colleges, universities, prisons, and other institutions.

Each state could sell its granted lands, but Washington state chose to keep most of its 3 million acres of trust lands. Over the decades, the state further enhanced its trust land holdings by blocking up lands, developing irrigation for agricultural uses, and other steps to enhance the ability of these lands to generate revenue for trust beneficiaries.

Responsibilities and relationships

As trust land managers, DNR has a fiduciary duty to manage these lands with undivided loyalty to the trust beneficiaries, considering both current and future generations of beneficiaries. We also have a fiduciary duty to act prudently. For the agriculture and grazing leasing program, this means generating fair market value rents for land uses, while assuring the productivity of the land is protected and enhanced so benefits are provided in perpetuity.

Our leasing procedures define the relationship between DNR as trustee, and our lessees, who are the on-the-ground managers producing agricultural commodities that are the source of revenue for the trusts. We encourage progressive, ecologically sustainable agriculture and recognize the value and interconnectedness of the many systems on our lands including water, fish and wildlife habitat, and agricultural production. We work to create, maintain, and improve these systems in a way that assures the long term sustenance of both revenue for the trusts and healthy ecosystems.

DNR works to optimize income from land assets for trust beneficiaries consistent with acceptable risk and good management practices. We may change the land use of property to the “highest and best use” when the expected net lease revenues and asset values are substantially greater than those of the current use. We also may make or authorize capital investments on lands to enhance the income stream and asset value when those investments meet acceptable financial and risk criteria. Above all, we keep the beneficiaries’ interests in mind at all times by maintaining a broad and diversified land base and, when the transaction will benefit the trust, replacing the properties we dispose of.

It’s exciting to be part of the century-plus legacy of state trust land management.

For more information on trust lands, read State Trust Lands: History, Management, & Sustainable Use, Jon A. Souder and Sally K. Fairfax (1996). Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.