Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2011 3:00 PM
Dan Wheat/Capital Press
The Yakima River flows through the Yakima Canyon north of Yakima and Selah on Dec. 8. Plagued by frequent water shortages from the river for years, water users, including farmers, have come up with a plan to store and conserve water to provide more in drought years. Damming this canyon was once considered but would interrupt fish passage.
Yakima groups unite behind compromise to store more water
By DAN WHEAT
Users of Washington state's Yakima River have struggled with water shortages for decades and have often been at odds with each other.
In December all interested parties, except two environmental groups, agreed to a plan that would provide junior water right holders with 70 percent of normal allocations in drought years. In some droughts they've had as little as 38 percent.
In March, the plan will be finalized and will enter a year-long process of review and approval through the state and federal environmental policy acts. Ultimately, congressional approval is needed along with funding.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Washington Department of Ecology headed an 18-month effort of 20 entities to draft the plan and estimate total cost at $5 billion.
Funding will be an "uphill climb," given congressional desires to reduce federal spending to curb the national debt, said Derek Sandison, director of Ecology's Office of Columbia River.
But the plan addresses all water issues in the basin, has broad support and can be implemented in pieces, all of which improves funding chances, Sandison said. Gov. Chris Gregoire last summer said she will lobby for it.
The 6,155-square-mile Yakima River Basin has experienced nine droughts since 1977. Farmers have lost crops and cities and fish haven't had enough water. Some growers ripped out apple trees after the last drought in 2005. The federal Risk Management Agency paid $5.2 million in Yakima County crop losses for 2005, which was not an abnormal amount and did not include losses on about 40 percent of farm acreage where crops were not insured.
Cities, farmers and fish in the basin need 3 million acre-feet of water annually and just 1 million acre-feet of it comes from reservoirs fed by snowpack in the Cascade Mountains. The rest comes from snowpack runoff that isn't stored.
The Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan was drafted by local, state and federal agencies, the Yakama Nation, irrigators and environmental groups. Through increased reservoir storage, aquifer storage, conservation and water marketing, the plan seeks to provide more water in drought years for farms, fish and cities and improve wildlife habitat.
Three main surface water storage elements could provide 560,800 acre-feet of additional water.
* Water would be pumped from the Yakima River during high flow into a new, 162,000-acre-foot, off-channel Wymer Reservoir in the Lmuma Creek drainage east of Yakima Canyon, north of Yakima and about eight miles upstream from the Roza Irrigation District diversion dam.
* A lower outlet or pumping of Lake Kachess near Easton would allow the lake to be drawn down another 80 feet, providing 200,000 acre-feet of water.
* Enlargement of Bumping Lake Reservoir in the Snoqualmie National Forest about 40 miles northwest of Yakima would gain about 190,000 acre-feet of water.
About 450,000 acre-feet is needed to reach the 70 percent goal, Sandison said.
Washington's congressional delegation supports the plan with Rep. Doc Hastings, whose district includes the Yakima basin, and Sen. Patty Murray leading, Sandison said. Hastings, a Republican, is the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
That should help, Sandison said.
None of the 20 groups working on the plan got everything they wanted and some disagree over parts of the plan, but "I think they will hang together," Sandison said. "The cost of failure is so extraordinarily high that it keeps people at the table."
Environmental groups American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation have yet to decide if they will support the plan, Sandison said. They are concerned about old growth timber being inundated by expansion of Bumping Lake Reservoir, he said.
Ron Van Gundy, consultant and retired general manager of the Roza Irrigation District, said the district is very happy with the plan and wants to push it forward.
The Yakima Basin Storage Alliance, headed by former Congressman Sid Morrison, supports the plan but has called it a "Band-Aid" approach and questions if it will meet its goal of 70 percent water supply in drought years. The alliance favored creation of a 10-mile-long, 1.3 million-acre-feet Black Rock Reservoir, filling a valley east of Yakima with Columbia River water.
The Bureau of Reclamation dropped that alternative as too costly. Sandison said it also had major technical problems since the south abutment of a proposed dam sat on a fracture zone over a fault.