Why the farmer and the enviro really can be friends on irrigation

Environmentalists don't often get behind flooding old-growth trees and expanding irrigation. But a deal in Eastern Washington has some surprises.
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The Yakima River in eastern Washington.

Environmentalists don't often get behind flooding old-growth trees and expanding irrigation. But a deal in Eastern Washington has some surprises.

Mark Twain once opined that in the American West, “whiskey’s for drinkin; water’s for fightin.” That’s been true in Washington’s Yakima River basin for decades. Plummeting salmon numbers, parched farms, and pokey progress on protecting wilderness meant deadlock on real solutions for fish, farms, and communities. Until now.

A solution is within reach, and it’s called the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. Supported by conservationists, farmers, and the Yakama Nation, the original stewards of the basin’s lands and waters, it’s a precedent-setting opportunity to restore salmon, protect public lands and rivers, increase the reliability of water supplies for farmers, and create new jobs in the basin. Beyond that, the plan is a template for smart innovation in basins across the country that face the four horsemen of climate change, water scarcity, dwindling wildlife, and divisive politics. 

In a nutshell, the plan, if approved in its current form, will:

  • Protect more than 140,000 acres of public lands.
  • Acquire more than 70,000 acres of private lands for protection including in the Teanaway basin.
  • Designate more than 200 miles of wild and scenic rivers.
  • Fund a massive effort to restore river habitat.
  • Create fish passage on six major dams.
  • Establish more robust water markets and conservation measures to stretch farmers’ water supply.
  • Expand water storage in two reservoirs to ensure a much more reliable supply to farmers.

In so doing, it will bring back what may be the largest sockeye run on the West Coast, protect more of this gorgeous landscape with one penstroke than we've been able to save in the last 28 years, and make peace in one of the longest running water conflicts in the West.

With its roots in decades of fights between conservationists, tribes, farmers and irrigators, the plan doesn’t come a moment too soon.  Climate change is melting glaciers and changing runoff timing faster than you can say “Teanaway-Manastash.” Five droughts have plagued the basin since 1992. Climate change is making water scarcity the new normal.

This plan is the result of three years of negotiations between farmers, local elected officials, conservationists, and state and federal agencies.  Gov. Chris Gregoire and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar deserve credit for bringing the table together and helping the players work through their differences, understand each other’s interests, and agree to a plan that benefits everyone.

To support the plan, the conservation community has joined forces with some strange bedfellows — including irrigators, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The plan’s very existence is a testament to the Bureau of Reclamation's newfound flexibility; now that water shortages are hitting farmers hard, the bureau is championing ecosystem services and helping to create a model for future water projects around the country. Also joining are Washington’s senators, conservation leaders from the basin and around the state, the basin’s three counties, and recreation interests up and down the river. We are all invested in making this approach succeed. As a result, this is a balanced plan — strengthening the local economy and securing wilderness gains in a very conservative part of the country.

And yes, it’s a compromise. Like any compromise there are parts we don’t like. Building new dams, expanding reservoirs, and flooding some old growth forest aren’t things we usually get behind, to put it mildly. All of us have worked for decades to remove dams that cause more problems than they solve and protect forests and other important habitats. So we don’t take these compromises lightly. But the upside of the plan for wild lands and wildlife is spectacular.

Quite simply, the plan will result in impressive salmon recovery and habitat restoration, water quality improvements, new federal wilderness and wild and scenic river designations, and the addition of more than 70,000 acres of privately owned land to conservation status. This includes 45,000 acres in the Teanaway basin that has been the unobtainable crown jewel for Washington conservation groups for decades. The plan will protect 200 acres for every acre flooded by reservoir expansion.  

The fact is, reasonable people from across the political spectrum have come together to create a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The prospects for conservation far outshine the trade-offs.

So what, exactly, will happen for conservation if this plan makes it through Congress? There will be $860M for river restoration and fish passage to bring back historic numbers of salmon; water markets and conservation to stretch farmers’ water supply; major public, private, and riparian land protections. Now that’s what you call a comprehensive package.

And it will cost money — a lot of it. $4B, to be precise, over the next 30 years. That’s the next frontier of negotiation. The conservation community will be working over the next year to make sure that the right parts of the deal get funded quickly and comprehensively. As the plan moves from a great concept into federal legislation over 2013, we’ll be vigilant. The Yakima Basin’s approach to fish, families and farms can  — and should  —  become a national example for conservationists, farmers and the feds.


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