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Published: Sunday, August 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
In Our View / Negotiating landscapes

The fierce politics of water

On Friday, the Washington Board of Natural Resources unanimously voted in favor of one of the largest private land acquisitions in Northwest history.
It's an agreement that teases out a long narrative on water politics, interest-group horse-trading and the federal government's role in the 21st century West.
In June, the Legislature approved $99 million from the capital budget to purchase 50,000 acres of the Teanaway River Valley north of Cle Elum. Forterra, a land conservation group, working in concert with the state, negotiated the agreement with the willing seller, American Forest Holdings, LLC.
The Teanaway sale will protect the river valley's headwaters as well as the Yakima Basin watershed. In public lands parlance, it's a "working landscape," with recreational, livestock grazing and partially logged forestland.
Bipartisan harmony for Teanaway was the exception to an inharmonious special session. The vote in favor was 48-0 in the Senate, and 80 to 2 in the House. Republicans and Democrats burnish it as a working-together showpiece. Gov. Jay Inslee requested the legislation to anchor his "jobs, water and fish" agenda.
Politics, however, often has a subtext.
The Teanaway is a magnificent but relatively small piece of a huge mosaic, a 30-year Bonneville-scale project, the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan. A diverse mission -- from enhancing fish and wildlife habitat to boosting water supplies for irrigation and municipal consumption -- reflects a diverse constituency. And that has implications for taxpayers.
In 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington state Department of Ecology convened a "work group" of stakeholders to hammer out details. The vision includes a new dam on Bumping Lake near the William O. Douglas National Wilderness Area and two new National Recreation Areas within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest that provide 41,000 acres for off-road vehicle use.
There are some big-ticket components. The Wymer dam, for example, comes in at $1.6 billion. "Wymer will cost taxpayers more than the rigorously studied and fiercely debated Seattle waterfront tunnel," said Rep. Reuven Carlyle. Carlyle and Snohomish Rep. Hans Dunshee added language to require financial controls and independent environmental review of the spending plan.
The integrated plan will reshape the management of water in the Yakima Basin for generations, premised on what Dunshee calls a "culture of cheap water."
The agreement also is predicated on spending and policy action from Congress, including national wilderness, wild and scenic river designations and matching the state's contribution.
As the pieces knit together, a range of policy questions comes into focus that go to the core of the project's financial and environmental viability. First is whether the feds punt and Washington taxpayers foot the entire bill. "Five billion of tax dollars are starting to go out the door," Dunshee said.
Gov. Inslee accepts the compromises in the integrated plan, press secretary Jaimie Smith said. "Compromise means everyone gives and takes and ultimately this was a compromise he was pleased to support."
Inslee also is "very optimistic" about the feds delivering, Smith said.
Sean Coit, a spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, said that Murray is encouraged by the work group's progress. "She has secured millions in federal funding for projects authorized under the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project and the Yakima River Basin Water Storage Study," Coit said.
In an era when Congress is characterized by inertia, members of the Congressional delegation artfully avoid commitment. The era of Sen. Warren Magnuson and federal largesse has passed. All the while, no one wants to rip the seam from years of negotiation.
"The plan is clearly a compromise and I'm still reviewing it closely but believe it represents a positive step forward in dealing with water issues related to the Yakima Basin," said Rep. Suzan DelBene.
The downside of granular negotiating, like art-of-the-possible politics, is losing sight of the greater good. Is the integrated plan in the public interest, not just now but 100 years from now? Consider one of the critical horse trades, the loss of 3,000 acres of ancient forest at Bumping Lake.
"Anytime you flood old growth for a reservoir, it has to be a last resort," said Rep. Jim McDermott, whose 7th Congressional District extends into south Snohomish County. "I know that a lot of work has gone into this plan and it goes a long way to achieving many of our irrigation, recreation, and habitat goals. With that said, however, stakeholders should look very closely at the deal. We'll only get one chance at getting this right and once an ancient forest is gone, it's gone for good."

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