Benton County says Yakima Basin water bank system agreement not a good fit

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldMay 15, 2013 

Yakima snowpack 2_11_03pte

The Yakima River runs past orchards and farmland as it winds toward the Columbia River upstream of Benton City.

TRI-CITY HERALD FILE

Benton County commissioners on Wednesday said they won't sign an agreement that could lead to creating a public water bank system in the Yakima River Basin.

The agreement, with the state Department of Ecology and Kittitas and Yakima counties, isn't a good fit for Benton County and its residents, commissioners said during and after a special meeting Wednesday.

With the pact, "we're in a group arrangement -- Kittitas County, Yakima County, Benton County -- but we have varying degrees of interest," Commissioner Jim Beaver said. "One size doesn't fit all."

A water bank system generally would involve rural property owners -- with land in unincorporated areas without municipal water service -- buying portions of senior surface water rights in order to build new homes.

The counties would manage the water banks.

The idea is to protect senior water rights without putting a stop to rural development, proponents have said. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that surface water and groundwater are connected in the basin, and that wells are drawing down the Yakima River, according to information from the state.

Beaver said that connection is debatable, and that Kittitas and Yakima counties face different water issues than Benton County.

"(The agreement) is designed to turn the counties into a (water) utility. We would be in the water business," he said.

Commissioners Shon Small and Jerome Delvin also voted against the agreement.

Tom Tebb, Department of Ecology regional director, said Kittitas and Yakima counties could still go forward with the pact, it could be changed or the state might work individually with the counties to come up with a solution.

A $2 million state budget request that would allow Ecology to buy water rights for a public bank system is on the table. Tebb said there's still hope it could come through this legislative session.

Beaver said the county already has a groundwater management plan in place. "We're meeting the requirements of state law and we're addressing the issues that we face," he said.

Still, he said, they plan to continue participating in the meetings. "We will try to help find solutions."

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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