A farm field near Yakima, where irrigation is often critical
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.
“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."