Yakima Basin water plan benefits farmers and fish

  • By Urban Eberhart, Michael Garrity, and Virgil Lewis
  • Friday, September 13, 2013 5:44pm
  • OpinionCommentary

After 30 years of conflict and increasingly frequent drought in the Yakima River Basin, a diverse coalition of farmers, conservationists, the Yakama Nation, and government officials have hammered out a national precedent-setting vision to improve water security for farms and communities, bring back salmon and steelhead, and protect and restore the streams and forests of the river’s headwaters.

We, as representatives of the agricultural, environmental, and tribal communities, have come together to endorse the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, an innovative and far-reaching package of actions to ensure adequate water supplies and a healthier environment. The plan includes an ambitious set of actions centered on water conservation, habitat protection and restoration, water supply improvements, and fish passage at five reservoirs that supply water to the Yakima Basin’s $3.2 billion agricultural industry. The result will be a reliable water supply for farmers and communities even in drought years and hundreds of thousands of salmon returning to the Yakima Basin every year, including what could be the largest sockeye salmon run in the lower 48 states.

Thanks to the leadership of Governor Jay Inslee and an unusually broad and bipartisan group of state legislative supporters, the Yakima Plan is off to a great start. Already, the plan has funded conservation of 50,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat in the Teanaway River watershed that was threatened with resort and ranchette development. Thanks to those threats and the Teanaway’s extensive forest habitat and prime fish spawning streams, the Teanaway watershed was the state environmental community’s premier land conservation target. Uncertainty over the Teanaway’s future had prevented investments to restore degraded parts of the watershed, but now projects to restore natural water storage in floodplains and meadows that will benefit both salmon and downstream water users will get the green light.

The legislature also provided seed money for the construction of fish passage into the protected watershed above Cle Elum Dam and for access to new water supplies from existing reservoirs at Kachess and Cle Elum lakes. Fish passage at Lake Cle Elum will allow for restoration of the Cle Elum River’s salmon, steelhead, and bull trout populations. Among the fish runs restored will be a huge sockeye salmon run, a cornerstone of the Yakama Nation’s culture that had been absent from the Yakima Basin for nearly 100 years until they were recently reintroduced in anticipation of permanent fish passage.

The Yakima Plan’s water conservation provisions are ambitious and its approach to the development of new water supply is incremental and based on a careful analysis of how much water will be needed to meet the needs of farms, communities, and the river ecosystem in the face of climate change and population growth. The Yakima Plan calls for major investments in agricultural water conservation, best practice standards in cities and towns that access new water supplies, groundwater storage, increased use of a regional “water bank” in drought years, and targeted new water storage.

The plan’s water conservation component involves expanded funding for an existing — and successful — Yakima Basin water conservation effort, and it will ultimately save an additional 170,000 acre-feet of water. Many Yakima irrigators have been vulnerable to drought for years and have therefore installed efficient, state-of-the-art irrigation systems. The Yakima Plan will fund projects to save water in less efficient irrigation districts like the Wapato Irrigation Project on Yakama Nation lands, pushing aside bureaucratic obstacles to water conservation. New municipal water supplies will be conditioned on meeting best-practice standards for water efficiency.

The first water storage projects under the plan will be a small increase in the water storage behind Cle Elum Dam (via a three-foot raise of the dam that will be done in conjunction with construction of fish passage) and a project to access currently inaccessible water stored behind an existing dam at Kachess Lake. Plan proponents are well aware that innovative cost-share arrangements between state, federal, and private interests will be necessary for the Kachess and Cle Elum projects, let alone larger water storage projects down the road that will be subject to significant additional environmental and fiscal scrutiny.

As we’ve described, the benefits of the Yakima Plan are far-reaching and even profound for those who depend on the Yakima River for economic and cultural sustenance. The plan will restore salmon and steelhead from around 20,000 today to hundreds of thousands in the future. Floodplain and stream restoration will restore wetlands and plant communities the Yakama Nation has relied on for millennia. The state’s highest-value farmlands will be buffered from increasingly frequent droughts. And the whole state will benefit from having one of its largest watersheds working cooperatively to achieve a more sustainable economy, a healthier environment, and a higher quality of life for residents and visitors alike.

Urban Eberhart is on the board of the Kittitas Reclamation District. Michael Garrity is Washington State Conservation Director for American Rivers. Virgil Lewis is a member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council.

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