The $4 billion plan released jointly by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington state Department of Ecology resulted from months of discussions by various stakeholders in the region, including conservation and farm groups, local communities and the Yakama Nation.
The plan includes proposals for one new reservoir and the expansion of at least two others, as well as enhanced water conservation and improved fish passage and habitat, among other things.
In a statement, Gov. Chris Gregoire urged Congressional and state leaders to support the proposal, but its future remains in question amid state and federal budget cuts.
"Water is the lifeblood of our state," Gregoire said. "Our communities, our $1 billion agricultural industry and our fish all depend on a reliable source of water to survive and to thrive."
The Yakima River basin stretches from Snoqualmie Pass to Richland, south of the Hanford nuclear reservation. The heavily irrigated region is home to thousands of acres of tree fruit, wine grapes, hops and other crops, but it has been susceptible to drought. In those lean years, fish suffer in low rivers and farmers and towns with newer water rights have their water supply rationed.
In the past 30 years, millions of dollars have been spent on dozens of studies of the basin, with no consensus on how to improve water supplies for fish, irrigators and growing communities.
The latest plan has its weaknesses, but the fact that a group of people with such diverse interests could agree to compromise is a mark of success, said Jim Trull, manager of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District and a member of the working group that crafted the plan.
"The big gorilla in the closet is, "Where are we going to get enough money to build this project?"' he said. "Given the total price tag, you can see this is something that, under the best of circumstances, is going to have to be done in phases."
Washington lawmakers and Congress alike are considering budget cuts to ease deficits, and the likelihood of money being approved for the plan is uncertain.
The Bureau of Reclamation will spend a little more than $1.1 million in fiscal year 2012 to study improvements for fish passage and a water supply system, while the state will spend roughly $2 million to begin studies of its own, said Wendy Christensen, a program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Additional requests for federal spending would require the approval of Congress.
The reality is that these projects could take years, even decades, Trull said.
"That's the challenge, to keep everyone patient and satisfied and supportive on a project that's going to take years to complete," he said. "It just has dramatic impacts on individual growers and dramatic impacts on our local and regional economy as well. We just need to get a more stable water supply."
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