A consensus-based plan to solve Washington State’s Yakima River Basin problems is getting national attention. It’s the first basinwide plan in the nation and one of the most significant ecological projects proposing to improve something for everyone—fish and wildlife, agriculture, and municipal and domestic users.
The official name for the proposal is the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan. Known as “the Integrated Plan,” it’s the result of decades of discussions by a diverse group of state and federal water, fish, and natural resource agencies, the Yakama Indian Nation, irrigation districts, environmentalists, and county and city governments that began in the 1970s after several short-water years.
The Yakima River Basin stretches from the northern reach in Kittitas County to Benton County and encompasses about 6,200 square miles and 360,000 people. The region is recognized for its salmon and steelhead runs, second only to those of the Snake River, and offers diverse outdoor recreation.
Moreover, it’s the second-largest agricultural production region in the country, with annual farm revenues of $1.8 billion for grower revenues and $2.3 billion from food processing. Most of the basin’s 500,000 acres of irrigated lands produce high-value crops—apples, cherries, pears, hops, wine grapes, and hay.
About half of the basin’s irrigated lands are subject to prorated water allocations in a short water year. Since the 1970s, prorated users have been cut as low as 37 percent of their normal allocation. Scientists have predicted that the Yakima Basin will likely experience 20 significant droughts in the next 100 years, says Urban Eberhart, a member of the Integrated Plan’s workgroup.
“For each drought, a conservative loss to farmers in the region is $150 million,” Eberhart said. “That equals $3 billion lost to the farmers from the 20 droughts, but doesn’t include losses to related industries, like packing and shipping, processing, suppliers, lost wages to employees, and a reduced tax base of rural communities. I’m not an economist, but when you factor in agriculture’s economic benefits to local and state economies, it exceeds $6 billion.”
Doing nothing is not an option, he said.
Washington’s Department of Ecology brought a diverse work group together in 2009 to develop a consensus-based proposal for the water-short Yakima River Basin. The Integrated Plan was completed in 2011, and the following year an environmental impact statement examining the broad components of the proposal was released.
The statement does not analyze project-specific elements, which still need to go through environmental reviews.
The plan includes the seven major elements: Fish passages, structural and operational changes, surface water storage, groundwater storage, water conservation, water marketing, habitat/watershed enhancement and protection.
Among the elements proposed for the initial development phase are a fish passage and three-foot raise at Cle Elum Lake, a tunnel to move water between Kachess and Keechelus lakes, a drought relief pumping plant, and preparation of studies for the new Wymer Storage and enlargement of Bumping Reservoir.
Total cost for the initial development phase of the plan, which funds needs through 2023, is around $900 million. Additional money for the middle development phase, from 2024 to 2034, is needed to build a new storage facility along the Yakima River called Wymer Reservoir and to enlarge storage at Bumping Reservoir. The final phase would be completed by 2043.
There’s been broad political support for the plan. Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, and the state legislature are behind the plan. Last year, $137 million was allocated for initial projects, with commitments in place to provide funding for up to half of the project’s total costs in the first phase.
Last fall, the state purchased 50,000 acres—the Teanaway Purchase—of forestland within the Yakima River watershed to enhance tributary habitat as part of the plan. Sufficient funding is in place to start the initial water supply and fish passage projects at Kachess and Cle Elum Reservoirs. Another $400 million in federal, state, and local funding will be needed between 2015 and 2020 to finish the projects.
At the federal level, Congressman Doc Hastings, representing Washington’s fourth district, introduced a discussion draft of legislation that would create funding sources for water storage projects, including a $2 billion fund to provide financing for dam construction and improvements to existing reservoirs.
Hastings’s discussion draft would divert money from future revenues into the existing Reclamation Fund at Treasury, a fund that once was dedicated to general western water projects but has since been simply used to appropriate a portion of annual operating funds to the Bureau of Reclamation.
The Reclamation Fund balance has grown substantially in recent years due to increases in oil and gas royalties from public land leases dedicated to the fund decades ago.
Additionally, the Integrated Plan has the ear of the U.S. president. Some $11 million were included as a line item, and additional agency funding was allocated in President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget.