New dams aren’t the way to address water needs

  • By Chris Maykut, Brock Evans and Estella Leopold
  • Friday, September 20, 2013 3:07pm
  • OpinionCommentary

“In arid regions we attempt to offset the process of wastage by reclamation, but it is only too evident that the prospective longevity of reclamation projects is often short. In our own West, the best of them may not last a century.”

— Aldo Leopold, writing on “The Land Ethic” in “A Sand County Almanac”

The Everett Herald recently published a guest column by supporters of the Yakima Water Plan (“Yakima Basin water plan benefits farmers and fish,” September 15, 2013). While the Yakima Water Plan has good elements — improving Yakima River salmon passage and some wilderness protections — the costs are too high.

The Yakima Water Plan proposes two new irrigation dams (Bumping Lake and Wymer) costing taxpayers billions and destroying places precious to people and wildlife. The Bumping Lake dam would drown magnificent ancient forests adjacent to the William O. Douglas Wilderness — comparable to the Olympic’s Hoh River Valley. The Wymer dam would drown sage grouse shrub-steppe habitat.

How did we get to this point? Weren’t we just recently celebrating the removal of the Elwha dams?

First, dam proposals are the “undead.” They never die. New Yakima Basin irrigation dams have been cussed and discussed for decades — but never built.

Under scrutiny, dam construction and maintenance are money-losers for taxpayers. Indeed, the 2012 Green Scissors report on wasteful and damaging federal projects includes both proposed Yakima dams.

Nationwide, dams and other infrastructure are largely built out — many deteriorating and in disrepair, as reported in October by the National Research Council. We can’t afford existing dams, let alone new ones.

New Yakima dams would merely “kick the can down the road.” Water would go unused except in water-short years — at first. But irrigation expands to use available water. Then we’ll need another dam, and another.

Crops are water — and when we export such crops as hay for Japanese racehorses, we are exporting our most precious natural resource: Washington’s water.

The costs of water delivery from new storage projects would be mostly borne by taxpayers, and by salmon and other wildlife that depend on these same waters, not by the irrigation districts that would benefit.

There are better, less costly ways to remedy the imbalance between water demand and limited water supply. Here are some:

•Yakima irrigators have not paid for the costs of the existing five federal dams. Market forces need to play a greater role to curb water waste.

Rather than taxpayers spending billions, water conservation in the Yakima should be mandatory, not optional.

Large volumes of federal water-project-grown hay are exported to Japan for racehorses. In a water-scarce basin, appropriate crop selection is essential.

Canals and ditches need to be lined and piped to stop wasting precious water.

Finally, a word about ethics and public participation. From the start, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Ecology manipulated the process and participants to achieve their desired outcome: new dams. “Anything to achieve an end” may expediently get to pouring concrete — but it breaches trust and corrodes institutions.

Behind-closed-doors dealings help explain the Yakima Plan’s provisions.

The Plan would have Congress forever constrain the Forest Service’s ability to manage wildlife habitat and watershed in the Teanaway and Manastash-Taneum basins within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest by designating 41,000 acres of our National Forest lands for “backcountry motorized” National Recreation Areas (NRAs) degrading headwater habitat with increased motorcycles on trails and snowmobiles cross-country.

The public had 45 days to comment on the agencies’ draft Yakima Plan — until Jan. 3, 2012. One day later, on Jan. 4, Plan proponents revealed the motorized NRA provision, and later added it to the Plan. Not even Forest Service staff of the Cle Elum Ranger District was consulted. Now the Plan supporters are backing away from the proposal for NRAs, saying they will “defer” it until after the current Forest Plan process — but the proposal for NRAs is still in the Yakima Water Plan.

Because of all these substantive and procedural flaws, more than thirty conservation organizations have refused to support the Yakima Plan, its dams and its proposed NRAs, including the Sierra Club, Audubon, The Mountaineers, the Washington Environmental Council, Friends of Bumping Lake, Washington Wild, ALPS, the North Cascades Conservation Council, the Endangered Species Coalition and the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs. Many of them testified in the state Legislature’s hearings this year.

We need a new ethic for the lands and waters — for the Yakima, and far beyond. We cannot dam our way out of climate change and water shortages. Bumping Lake and the Wymer site (between Ellensburg and Yakima) are now threatened with destruction by new irrigation dams. You can help. Together we need to wave a big red stop sign at the Yakima Plan: STOP new dams and STOP water waste in the Yakima Basin.

The Yakima Plan does not deserve the support of elected officials, state and federal resource agencies, or any conservation organization. It does deserve more scrutiny by the Everett Herald. A lot more.

For more information:

Chris Maykut is a Seattle restaurateur who leads Friends of Bumping Lake. Brock Evans is President of Endangered Species Coalition, and served for many years as the Sierra Club’s Northwest Regional Director. In 1972, he received the Washington Environmental Council’s “Environmentalist of the Year” Award, the first time the award was given. Estella Leopold, youngest daughter of Aldo Leopold, is a paleobotanist who has worked to protect forests and waters of the Pacific Northwest.

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