Innovative Water Solutions

Irrigators coming together to pay for Yakima watershed projects

Photo of a man talking into a microphone.

Ron Van Gundy

It’s a journey that old-timer Ron Van Gundy says started in the late 1970s and early '80s when irrigators were faced with new Clean Water regulations. Too much sediment was being carried to the Yakima River, causing it to turn milk chocolate brown at irrigation outfalls such as Sulphur Creek near Sunnyside.

Their response: switch from flooding fields with water to installing sprinkler and drip irrigation to prevent sediment runoff and pesticide pollution to the Yakima River. The benefits of their actions were twofold — an 85 percent improvement in water quality and conservation of tens of thousands of acre-feet of water precious to the agricultural economy in the face of drought and climate change.

Cooperation, not fighting

Today, those same irrigators with their once adversaries are helping to implement one of the nation’s largest water and environmental enhancement projects under the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan.

The goal: to meet water needs for families, farms, forests and fish without fighting. The efforts begun decades ago helped irrigators get through the drought of 2015 and set the stage for success through the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

Where factions have traditionally lawyered up and met only in the courtroom, these same parties, known collectively as the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Workgroup, log many miles together pitching their approach to state legislators at home and Congressmen on the Hill in Washington, D.C. They’ve gained recognition in the halls of the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture, where WaterSMART watershed management approaches are touted.

Plan gaining national attention

A vineyard field, with plants growing up string-like devices.

Drip irrigation conserves water, improves water quality

A cover article and spread in the Oct. 17, 2016, Christian Science Monitor Weekly is a testament the plan has gained national attention:

In an innovative agreement, farmers have joined with environmental groups, the Yakama Nation, state and federal officials to both increase water availability and restore the natural landscape,” writes Zack Colman in the CSM article.
Although the plan focuses on just one section of the state, it is an agriculturally significant one – the Yakima Basin. And it’s comprehensive: The plan includes voluntary conservation programs, building new water-storage reservoirs, and adding structures to dams that would help fish seek cooler waters as they migrate upstream.
... Many water experts say the fledgling accord could be a model largely because farmers themselves have agreed to pay for investments that promise to enable their water needs to be met alongside those of city dwellers and endangered salmon.

Interest from D.C.

Sockeye salmon swimming in water

Sockeye salmon

In mid-October, leaders from the other Washington (D.C.), representing a dozen federal agencies, toured integrated plan projects in the Yakima Basin. Along the tour they met with workgroup members and viewed sockeye salmon spawning in tributaries above Cle Elum Reservoir. The Yakama Nation’s fisheries program is restoring one of only four remaining sockeye populations in the Columbia River Basin. Fish passage at Cle Elum is part of the plan’s first decade of work. In addition, irrigators are pursuing financial partnerships to fund the Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant project, another early action project. They are proposing to access water now stored in Kachess Lake with a floating pump during drought years. This, and other surface water storage projects advocated by the integrated plan, would be funded by irrigators.

A creative financial approach

Taking advantage of a new program offered by the U.S. Department of Interior, the Roza Irrigation and Kittitas Reclamation districts have agreed to explore ways to secure non-federal public and private financing for the Kachess project. The Natural Resource Investment Center was created to help connect investors to natural resource projects that have traditionally been publicly funded.
Roza Irrigation District manager Scott Revell explained in the Yakima Herald-Republic
“There are a surprisingly large number of private (investors) who want to make investment in infrastructure projects that have ecosystem benefits.”
Working with the investment center would help the local irrigation districts connect with those investors, who would loan money to the pumping plant project for both a return on investment and the opportunity to demonstrate their support for water-smart projects, Revell said.

State and federal investments

Our Office of Columbia River helped spearhead development of the plan with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, beginning in 2009 by bringing once-adversarial water users together. So far, the state has invested as much as $140 million for integrated plan projects.

Reclamation has contributed approximately $78 million, and other federal agencies participating have contributed approximately $167 million to projects consistent with Integrated Plan in the Yakima Basin.
“Success of the program will hinge on these public and private partnerships, with state, local and federal dollars all playing a part,” said Office of Columbia River director Tom Tebb. “We know we need to be creative as well as smart in how we prioritize and fund these water projects.”

In the U.S. Senate and House, Washington legislators are promoting a compromise bill that would jumpstart funding of the 30-year watershed plan at the federal level by as much as $92 million.

For Ron VanGundy, it may have taken 30 years to get here. But he has always been forward thinking. “The people we were working with back then were working for something they would never see. They knew it was important then. And it’s just as important now.”

Yakima River coming through canyon around the bend from left to right of image

Yakima River Canyon