Hitching to conservation

Politics can be an ecosystem, a social science version of John Muir’s, “anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan is a $5 billion, 30-year mega-project that defines “integrated,” with multiple gears and political interests. Tug on one part, and we find it hitched to everything else.

The purchase of 50,000 acres in the Teanaway drainage from American Forest Holdings, LLC, earlier this month was a tangible step forward in protecting the Yakima River watershed. The land includes water rights that predate 1905, when the federal government received title to everything that hadn’t yet been privately claimed. As Gov. Jay Inslee notes, healthy management of the watershed will enhance water supply and quality as well as preserve sources of cold-water habitat for fish.

The Teanaway purchase is a standalone win for Washington. Curiously, the heart of the project — water storage for irrigation, fish and domestic-use — flows from failure. In 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation opted for a “no action” recommendation after concluding a four-year, $16 million research study on Yakima basin storage. The plan’s centerpiece was the Black Rock reservoir, priced at $7.7 billion. The project didn’t pass the cost-benefit test — coming in at 13 cents for every dollar invested — and supporters regrouped. For four years, the Yakima Working Group, under the rubric of the Washington Department of Ecology and USBR, has been fine-tuning the plan.

The agencies’ final 2012 environmental impact statement incorporated two alternatives, including no action. With negotiations so delicate (mix land, water and interest groups into an even confection) systemic questions get sidelined. Success requires consensus.

The question that shouldn’t unhitch the plan’s other components is why storage trumps conservation. On the dry east side in Yakima, the average consumer uses 250 gallons of water per day, and a household pays $1.51 per hundred cubic feet. In households in Everett and Tacoma, the drizzly west side, a consumer pays $3.38 per hundred cubic feet and uses approximately half the amount of water per day. Economics drives behavior.

“If market forces were ever more evident, I don’t know where they would be,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. “Cheap, subsidized water means more use, and higher prices mean more prioritized use of water.”

Dunshee’s observation extends beyond domestic water use. Crop choices also are informed by inexpensive water.

As Yakima basin proponents look to a $1.6 billion Wymer dam and raising Bumping Lake, meaningful conservation needs to be hitched on as well.

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