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Cantwell measure allows more irrigation in return for fish, land protections

A farm field near Yakima, where irrigation is often critical Credit: State Department of Ecology

Getting U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s bill through committee was definitely a milestone — but whether it marked progress forward toward a more rational and cooperative future or back toward a discredited past will get you an argument. Either way, S. 1694, the Yakima Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act of 2015, sponsored by Cantwell and co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, has been passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a significant step toward enactment.

The legislation would give federal blessing to the next steps in carrying out the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan. Cantwell, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a press release that the plan will serve as a model for other water basins around the country.

“Senator Cantwell’s leadership will help restore abundant salmon and steelhead runs in the Yakima Basin, including in its wilderness headwaters,” said Michael Garrity, American Rivers’ Director of Rivers of Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin, in a press release. “This legislation is a win-win for the Yakima Basin’s fish, families and farms.”

On the other hand, John Osborn, who coordinates the Sierra Club’s Columbia River Future
Project, says, “This bill takes us in the wrong direction.” In the face of climate change and drought, Osborn says the bill fails to fully embrace water conservation. And “it’s really terrible public policy in terms of process.”

The same advocates took roughly the same positions four years ago, when a “workgroup” — which included American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation, plus local governments, state and federal agencies and the Yakama Nation — finished negotiating the Basin plan, which became final in 2012. The following year, appropriating money for it became the subject the very first bill request by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The plan includes something for everyone. It embraces fish passage at existing dams; habitat restoration along tributaries; preservation of land that drains into the tributaries; a pumping station and a “K to K” pipeline to get water from Kachess Lake (left of the freeway as you drive east on I-90 from Snoqualmie Pass) to Lake Kechelus (on the right) and hence to the Yakima River. And there is new water storage, created by raising the existing dam at Bumping Lake east of Mount Rainier and by building a new Wymer Dam. Placed in Lmuma Creek Canyon, north of Yakima, Wymer would store water pumped from the Yakima River during periods of high flow.

As part of the plan, the Washington Legislature came up with, in round numbers, $100 million to buy and preserve 50,000 acres of privately owned checkerboard land holdings around the headwaters of the Yakima River. Most of the land lies in the Teanaway River Basin (the Teanaway flows into the Yakima near Cle Elum), but some also lies in the basins of First and Cabin creeks. The conservation group Forterra negotiated the deal. For many environmental groups that favored the plan, the Teanaway was the big win. It protects nearly 80 square mile of trails and habitat that would otherwise have been chopped up for development. Under a headline that proclaimed “Victory in Washington’s Teanaway Valley ,” The Wilderness Society explained, “The forest is incredibly important for the role it plays in safeguarding the Yakima Basin drinking and agriculture water supply and wildlife habitat … and is home to one of Washington’s newest wolf packs. ”

For groups that opposed the deal, saving all that aggressively logged acreage didn’t offset the potential flooding of old-growth forest near Bumping Lake, or the continued push for increased water storage rather than decreased water waste. Some of the same people had fought to save the same old-growth forest from the same fate decades ago. In 2009, when the planning process began, the chair of the Sierra Club’s Cascade Chapter wrote that “the loss of over 1900 acres of old-growth forest: around the current Bumping Lake … is completely unacceptable.”

The Yakima River Basin
The Yakima River Basin

For irrigators in the Yakima Basin, the prospect of gaining an expanded Bumping Lake and other new storage was key. That was why they accepted the plan.

Yakima Valley irrigators and officials have wanted more water storage for decades. Early in this century, they pinned their hopes on a new Black Rock Dam. The dam would have created a reservoir near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (and raised the water table under polluted Hanford — oops). It would have stored water pumped from the Columbia River during high flows, and released the water as needed into the canals of the Yakima Valley’s big Roza Irrigation District. The flows from Black Rock would have replaced water that would otherwise have been withdrawn from the Yakima River. Former Congressman Sid Morrison said that building Black Rock would have created “an oasis in the desert.” It might have. But the federal Bureau of Reclamation — hardly a traditional critic of dam building — said it would have created 16 cents worth of benefit for every dollar invested. Exit Black Rock.

And enter the Yakima Basin Intergrated Water Management Plan. In 2006, the Legislature told the Department of Ecology to “aggressively pursue the development of water supplies,” and created an account that Ecology has used to fund an Office of the Columbia River. Right after Black Rock went down in flames, the Office of the Columbia River and the federal Bureau of Reclamation formed a “workgroup” to produce an integrated plan.

This past summer’s drought has created a greater sense of urgency about solving water problems in the Yakima Basin and elsewhere. Last winter may have been an anomaly — temperatures were driven up by the huge offshore “blob” of warm water, and there’s no reason to believe the rest of the the decade will be this dry — but in the long run, get used to it. By the next decade, Washington temperatures are expected to be two degrees warmer than the last decades of the past century. “The conditions that we are having this year are exactly what we expect to become the new normal,” says Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group. “I would say that this year is a dress rehearsal for climate change.”

The Climate Impacts Group has found that in the Yakima Basin, water shortages “would likely occur 32 percent of years in the 2020s, 36 percent of years in the 2040s, and 77 percent of years in the 2080s.”

That puts a lot at stake. The annual value of the basin’s irrigated agriculture is about $3 billion. Those high-end wine grapes? They require about twice as much water as nature provides — and that’s if there is no drought.

But there is more than one way to deal with the threat of future drought. Critics say that this plan leaves a lot of potential water conservation on the table, and leaves the state’s problematic water laws in place. Building new dams and pipelines, they say, shouldn’t be the first resort.

In part, the pressure to build reflects the stark difference between central Washington’s water haves and have-nots. Western water law — an artifact of the 19th century that some say is antiquated but is nevertheless what we have — enshrines the doctrine, “first in time, first in right.” Basically, this boils down to first come, first served — forever. Someone with a senior water right gets every last drop before a junior user gets any.

In past droughts, junior water rights holders could just start pumping from emergency wells. But no more. There are plenty of drought wells left over from the dry year of 1977, but people realize now that groundwater ultimately feeds the Yakima River, which is completely allocated. If you pump groundwater now, at some later time, someone with more senior rights will get less water. Therefore, as a summer shortage loomed, the state warned junior water rights holders not to pump unless they acquired rights from more senior holders to offset the impact.

That kind of acquisition was easier said than done. Not long ago, a lot of people grew hay and other annual crops within the irrigation districts, and they were often willing to sell water for a year to someone more desperate than they were. Not any more; now that more people in the Yakima Basin have planted wine grapes, cherries and other perennial crops, a year without water would be disastrous for many senior rights holders, so the system is a lot less flexible.

And yet, junior water rights holders have also planted perennial crops — that’s a gamble, but there’s no law against it — so they can’t afford to lose a year, either. They see more storage as the solution to their problem.

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Lake Kachess, photo by Cambria Roth

A new dam won’t be on the table any time soon. However, Cantwell’s legislation would approve the pumping of water from Kachess Lake to Lake Kechelus. The Bumping Lake and Wymer Dam projects would be deferred at least 10 years down the road, although the Secretary of the Interior “shall” proceed with plans. Irrigation districts would have to pay for the infrastructure at the lakes.

Garrity points toward that as a landmark: Irrigators haven’t been asked to pay up front for water storage before. He says this is an area in which virtually everyone can find common ground. In Congress, there has been “pressure from both the left and the right to make sure that subsidies for water projects go away.” He suggests the sentiment is just about universal: “Even critics of the plan agree with the Tea Party on that.”

Partly, disagreements about the plan reflect differences of focus: If you look at localized effects, there is no way to justify the plan. If you look at benefits for the entire watershed, it may be worth giving up something valuable on limited acreage in order to get even more.

In a report to the Legislature, Washington State University economist Jonathan Yoder and colleagues concluded that “the major water storage projects as a group do not pass a [cost/benefit] test.” The economists put the benefit to cost ratio of those projects at anywhere from .20 to .02. Only under the most adverse climate considered for the report would any component of the plan produce positive numbers. Under those extreme circumstances, conveying water from lakes Kachess to Kechelus plus building a drought relief pumping plant at Kachess would scrape by with 1.02. Yoder’s group calculated that raising the dam at Bumping Lake would produce benefits equal to 18 percent of the costs, and building the Wymer Dam benefits equal to 9 percent.

People who advocate more storage concede that if you look at the projects individually — “disaggregated” is the term — they don’t pencil out; you have to look at the whole package in combination, at the benefits for fish as well as those for farmers. The Cantwell bill would authorize fish passage at Cle Elum and Tieton dams. Skeptics counter that the welfare of fish has become a smokescreen used to justify long-planned dam projects that, on their own, can’t withstand scrutiny.

Fish passage and fish habitat really will improve. No one disputes that. Critics argue that agencies should have required and provided fish passage all along. Proponents acknowledge that, but say that in the real world, fish passage hadn’t happened and would have been resisted absent the kind of quid pro quo that this compromise plan offers. “Business as usual is trying to keep steelhead and salmon recovery out of the basin because they make running it just for irrigation impossible,” Garrity said at the time Inslee asked for funding. He argued that the agreement recognizes “salmon and ecological restoration have a place in the basin.”

“The way that the politics are in a conservative, agricultural, irrigation-based economy in the West,” Garrity says, “if you can’t make a water solution work in some degree for agriculture and the economy, there are forces that are going to prevent progress on a significant scale for the environment. We’re in a place that doesn’t elect leaders that are going to prioritize environmental restoration at the expense of the agricultural economy.”

“The reality is,” he says, “in a basin like the Yakima, you’ve got to work with other non-fishery, non-environmental groups.”

Physically, hydrologically or economically, the fish passage, the habitat restoration and the preservation of open land don’t require pumping or a pipeline or new dams. Politically, though, if pumping and dams hadn’t been on the table, there would have been no deal. (Some proponents of the overall plan have said privately, though, that if the new storage projects aren’t built, they’ll be relieved.)

You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or so they say. Cantwell’s legislation, if makes through the full Senate and House, would provide more bites of the omelet. It won’t mollify people who fear the loss of certain eggs.

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