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Wanted in Washington: Billions for irrigation, other water projects

Washington House task force on water convenes, with more projects than money available.
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on October 6, 2015 10:51AM

Washington state Sens. John Braun, left, and Jim Honeyford listen during a meeting on water issues Oct. 5 in Olympia. Braun and Honeyford joined a House task force looking into how to fund irrigation, flood control and pollution reduction projects.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

Washington state Sens. John Braun, left, and Jim Honeyford listen during a meeting on water issues Oct. 5 in Olympia. Braun and Honeyford joined a House task force looking into how to fund irrigation, flood control and pollution reduction projects.

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OLYMPIA — Washington state lawmakers are hunting for billions of dollars for water projects, including major irrigation undertakings. So far, there are many ideas for spending money, but no popular way for raising it.

Legislators “still haven’t come up with one that’s acceptable to the majority,” Yakima Valley Sen. Jim Honeyford said Monday.

Some agricultural interests have aligned with flood-control and pollution-reduction advocates, hoping the three-way partnership will muster political support for funding ambitious and expensive projects.

The effort stumbled in the 2015 session. Honeyford, whose farm-rich district has suffered in the drought, and Sen. John Braun from flood-prone Lewis County proposed a statewide $35 per parcel tax to raise some $6 billion over 20 years.

Honeyford, a Sunnyside Republican, said Monday that the parcel fee has been “thrown out.” Nothing has taken its place.

Although Honeyford and Braun’s plan stalled, the House created a water task force, which met for the first time Monday.

The task force heard agriculture and conservation groups praise various projects, though nobody proposed a funding mechanism.

There were several suggestions for other ways to the spend money, such as replacing culverts, floodplain restoration and improving municipal water systems.

Honeyford said after the meeting that he wants to limit the program to irrigation, flood control and preventing stormwater pollution. Otherwise, the Legislature will need to raise more money or have less funds for the three main purposes, he said.

Honeyford said lawmakers could ask voters in a statewide referendum to borrow the money and pay it back from the general fund. He quickly noted, however, that legislators are still struggling to increase education funding, as ordered by the state Supreme Court.

If legislators find a way to fund water projects, some money presumably would go toward increasing water available to Yakima Valley farmers in drought years. A coalition of growers, environmentalists, tribes and government agencies finalized a 30-year, $3.8 billion plan in 2012. The state has committed $30 million over the next two years to move the plan ahead, but the plan calls for spending nearly $900 million over the next decade. Federal funding is a possibility, but the amount is uncertain.

Also, the state Department of Ecology estimates replacing farms wells drawing from the depleting Odessa Subarea aquifer with surface water in Eastern Washington will cost $365 million through 2030.

Kittitas Reclamation District manager Urban Eberhart said that to win funding for irrigation projects, agriculture groups must form an alliance with other interests.

“That is what is going to make it work,” he said. “You’re not going to be successful going it alone.”

Some homeowners and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, voiced their opposition at the House meeting to the Yakima water plan. They say increasing water storage at reservoirs will submerge recreation areas and deliver too little benefit to taxpayers.

Other environmentalists said they were eager to see money spent on preventing polluted stormwater from washing into Puget Sound.

Although no new ideas for funding projects surfaced, Eberhart said he was encouraged that the House appointed a committee to look at water problems.

“I’m really pleased they had the task force hearing and everybody’s talking about it and trying to do something, because things are very bad, and it’s necessary for everyone’s survival to do something,” Eberhart said.

The Kittitas Irrigation District shut off water for the season Aug. 6, more than two months early. The drought’s effects can clearly be seen on the landscape, Eberhart said.

Honeyford said he hasn’t seen a sharper focus on water issues in Olympia because of the drought, but that might change if food prices rise.



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