Yakima Basin water plan advocates lament Hastings’ departure

Yakima Herald-RepublicApril 6, 2014 

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings’ decision to retire after 20 years representing Eastern Washington has inspired a crowded field of candidates. But whoever replaces him won’t have his experience or his influential position as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Pasco Republican is stepping down just as the Yakima Basin’s new 30-year, $4 billion plan for water management needs congressional approval and funding for improvements to reservoirs and other projects.

Supporters of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan have mixed opinions about how the loss of Hastings’ influential support will affect the plan’s future.

Ron Van Gundy, former longtime manager and now a consultant to the Roza Irrigation District, worked with Hastings for many years and said it would have been beneficial to keep him for two more.

“It is concerning to lose his leadership,” Van Gundy said. “He couldn’t be in a better position for us.”

Hastings and his staff have taken the lead on drafting legislation to authorize the plan, Van Gundy said, and they know the most about the issues the plan is trying to address.

“While he’s still there and still in control, we need to work with his staff and try to get this first-draft legislation out,” he said.

But Jim Trull, manager of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, said the entire state delegation supports the plan and he believes they will continue to push for it.

“We’ll miss the seniority and leadership Hastings has provided, but the rest of the folks that represent us in D.C. are aware of what’s going on,” Trull said. “Other people will step up, and I’m confident this project will proceed.”

Supporters of the plan have also built a team in Washington, D.C., including agency staff and lobbyists representing agricultural and environmental groups, that is working to convince members of Congress that the basin’s proposed projects are a worthwhile investment of federal money.

Lisa Pelly, the Washington water project director for Trout Unlimited, said there is enough momentum behind the plan -- here in the state and in D.C. -- that Hastings’ retirement won’t slow down the coalition he helped build.

She added that the group plans to work more closely with Washington’s senators and Rep. Dave Reichert, whose 8th District now represents Kittitas County after the 2010 redistricting.

“We will certainly engage whoever Hastings’ replacement is and make sure they are brought up to speed and understand the benefits,” Pelly said.

Beyond just direct support for the Integrated Plan, Trull and Van Gundy said Hastings’ role as chair the Natural Resource Committee has been a benefit to the Yakima Basin because of the policies he has pushed for.

Trull said he believes whoever takes over as chair will likely support similar policies, even if California or Idaho -- not Central Washington -- is their home district.

“Not having our guy at the top of the leadership is undoubtedly a loss,” he said. “But our senators and the other leaders from Western states understand that we’ve got to find a way to deal with drought and find ways to enhance supply.”

Losing Hastings’ seniority might not be as significant a loss to Central Washington as some might expect, said Sid Morrison, a former 4th District congressman and chair of the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance.

“There’s no question that seniority has always been an important part of the congressional process, but it’s a less important part now that earmarks are taboo,” Morrison said.

With Congress members unable to trade votes to garner support for big money projects in their districts and budgets extremely tight, federal agencies have more control over which projects receive funding, Morrison said.

He added the new head of the Department of the Interior, Sally Jewell, has ties to the Northwest and seems to be impressed by the Integrated Plan’s diverse coalition of supporters. Morrison, Pelly, Van Gundy and Trull all said they expect whoever wins the election this fall will support the goals of the Integrated Plan. But Morrison also said he hopes the district elects a coalition-builder.

“We need to send somebody who wants to put the pieces together and will create the sort of lasting working relationships that we are going to need to get water in the Yakima Basin.” Morrison said.

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