Great water, natural resource projects on the horizon for Yakima River Basin

Boat floating on a river with an oar and fishing rod in it

Boat on the Yakima River between Ellensburg and Yakima

The nail-biting end to the Legislature last summer is all but forgotten as winds run cold and a new session looms in January. Projects OK’d for the Yakima River Basin aren't idling with the onslaught of winter. In fact they've sprinted out of the gate and are picking up speed.

That’s because they're built around consensus and shared values, and are good for the economy and the environment. They are designed to meet the needs of families, farms and fish.

As environmental stakeholders Michael Garrity with American Rivers, and Lisa Pelly with Trout Unlimited, put it in a May blog:

The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is a big deal. For farmers and river flows, certainly, ensuring water reliability as the climate warms and snowpack shrinks and as what’s left of it melts off sooner. For fish, definitely, bringing back what may be the largest sockeye run outside of Canada and Alaska. And for families, without a doubt, the wild places that we love so well will be enjoyed and protected by future generations.

Four quadrants of images of tomatoes, grapes, beets, carrots and apples

Yakima Basin produce

The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan re-imagines how water will be managed in a valley that is home of some of the state’s most fertile croplands.Yakima ranks 12th among all counties nationally  and leads the state for crop and animal production and agriculture related employment, something to think about when we consider the fruit, vegetables and meat we eat and the products we consume like beer, wine and toothpaste. We all can support and value “eating locally.”

According to a 2011 Washington State University report on Agriculture’s Contribution to Washington’s Economy, the basin’s irrigation permits the production of tree fruits, wine grapes and potatoes and is a prime growing region for specialty crops including hops, mint and hay.

Washington is one of a handful of states that produces a significant portion of the national total for a number of crops, including apples, cherries, lentils, garbanzo beans, hops, and mint.

Washington’s $9.5 billion in agricultural production supports 82,000 jobs; $1.5 billion in wages; $2.2 billion in proprietor income; $219 million in tax revenues and $16 billion in total economic impact. Food processing and manufacturing support 18,000 jobs, and agriculture and forestry industries support 31,000 jobs, together an $18.8 billion economic impact. In total, nearly $25 billion impact to the state!

Plan out of the starting blocks fast

River with forest behind it and snow-capped mountains in background.

Teanaway Community Forest

Ironically, the first action under the farm water program is the largest acquisition of private forestland by the state in 45 years. Proponents would say that’s the beauty of the integrated plan. Capped by a celebratory event on Oct. 1, the state closed on a deal protecting 50,000 acres in the Teanaway watershed high in the Yakima River Basin. The state’s first “ community forest ” will be jointly managed by the departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife for conservation, recreational and commercial uses.

Second out of the gate this fall was a piping project along Manastash Creek in Kittitas County that will bring more reliable water to local farmers and open 25 miles of creek passage for endangered steelhead.

The two projects illustrate nicely the elements touted by the plan as the recipe for water success.

The Yakima River Basin Water Resource Management Act of 2013 launches a program that:

  • Protects and enhances fish and wildlife;
  • Improves availability and reliability and efficiency of water supplies;
  • Establishes flexible operational enhancements to prepare for the uncertainties of climate change and drought.

Moving Forward 2013-15

It’s a 30-year plan, says Derek Sandison, director of the state’s Office of Columbia River, and it's already taken 30 years to get here. It builds on decades of conservation and water improvements undertaken in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Yakama Nation, local irrigation districts, cities and natural resource agencies. It says we can do better.

The Act’s initial $132 million investment jump-starts projects designed to protect farmers who face devastation during drought and likewise fish, which suffer when streamflows are low. And funds are crucial for garnering needed federal support.

Some $99 million went for the outright purchase of the Teanaway forest. The $32 million balance will be spent in keeping with the work group pledge to tackle the basin’s problems comprehensively.

Image of fish in water

Bull Trout at Deep Creek

Next on the docket is getting ready to construct fish passage at the Cle Elum Reservoir. This supports the Yakama Nation’s reintroduction of sockeye salmon to the basin and is a first step to achieving fish passage at all of the basin’s reservoirs.

Funding moves forward proposals to tap into 200,000 acre-feet of water now stored in Lake Kachess that we can’t now access and to increase the capacity at Cle Elum by 14,600 acre-feet by raising dam gates three feet, totaling the amount of water targeted for development by 2025.

A study is looking at constructing a pipeline from Kecheelus Lake to Lake Kachess. Connecting the two reservoirs could allow excess water in one basin to be stored and released from the greater capacity in the other basin. Draft environmental impact statements on these projects will be available next summer.

The 2013-2015 capital budget also funds surface and aquifer storage geologic work, numerous water conservation projects, and projects that develop water banking and exchange programs.

The bill stipulates that storage projects benefit both streamflows for fish and out-of-stream uses and sets water supply milestones by Jan. 30, 2025; if not met, the Teanaway Community Forest may be transferred to benefit the Common School Trust.

All the more incentive to cement the relationships built around the plan, and advance the values we all share: clean water to support our beautiful natural resources and to grow crops that feed us here at home in Washington, across the nation and around the world.

Related Flickr site.