Agencies' debate about definition of Amon Wasteway complicates development

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMay 4, 2014 

Does Amon Wasteway owe its existence only to irrigation water? Or is there a natural creek somewhere among the irrigation spill and return flow?

The wasteway -- which travels near Badger Canyon and through the Meadow Springs Golf Course -- has become a matter of debate.

For Kennewick Irrigation District, the issue seems clear. The wasteway didn't exist before KID first turned on its canal system to bring Yakima River water to area farmers in 1957.

But the state Department of Fish and Wildlife claims the wasteway is state water under its jurisdiction.

The resulting scuffle creates a mess that the city of Richland is leaving for Hayden Homes to unravel as the builder goes forward with plans for Clearwater Creek, near Amon Creek Natural Preserve.

How Amon Wasteway is defined becomes critical because it affects what the developer can do in terms of building public trails within the 320-home subdivision on land west of Steptoe Street and east of the Amon preserve. Claybell Park is to the north.

A system of trails on some of the planned 32 acres of open space within the development is among the conditions the city is suggesting.

The subdivision stirred controversy because some Tri-Citians were concerned about potential harmful effects on the Amon preserve. However, an agreement between Tapteal Greenway, the group that created the Amon preserve, and Hayden Homes eased some of the concern.

But the development faces another hurdle -- determining who has jurisdiction over the wasteway. KID and the federal Bureau of Reclamation have an easement of up to 400 feet around the wasteway where the trails have been proposed. A trail would need to be approved by the bureau, with a chance for KID to have input.

Chuck Freeman, KID manager, said that's a lengthy process. In general, the bureau does not approve trails because officials don't want human interaction with a working wasteway because of public safety concerns, he said.

KID may need to dump a lot of water into the wasteway if a canal breach occurs. While crews will warn people and clear out debris before a surge, public trails could create the possibility that people may be missed, he said.

Department of Fish and Wildlife officials assert that the developer will need hydraulic project approval from the agency for any work that directly affects the wasteway.

Hayden Homes will follow the requirements of the city and whatever agency has governance over the wasteway, said Nathan Machiela, the company's land development manager.

There also has been some discussion about having trails outside of the bureau's easement around the wasteway instead. But Scott Woodward, president of Tapteal Greenway, said people prefer to walk near habitat and water.

What it was

KID and bureau officials say Amon Creek, what some call the west branch of the wasteway, has never existed. Before irrigation, it was a dry wash, a dry bed carved into the landscape that rarely held water, except when there was a storm or melt.

Amon Wasteway has always been and always will be a wasteway and a drain, said Chuck Garner, the bureau's river operations and land resources supervisor.

Perry Harvester, Department of Fish and Wildlife's regional habitat program manager, doesn't dispute that a significant portion of the water is from irrigation spill and runoff.

But there is some natural flow and there isn't a reference in state law that defines a waterway of the state based on a proportion of annual flow that is natural and artificial, he said.

Fish use the water course, so state officials need to protect them, Harvester said. The department even has fishing seasons within the waterway.

Work can't happen in the stream without a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Harvester said. It has issued at least 25 permits for work within Amon Wasteway since 1994 to agencies, groups and businesses including the city of Richland, Tapteal Greenway, Meadow Springs Country Club and KID.

Seth Defoe, KID's planning manager, says state law isn't clear on the subject.

But Harvester argues it isn't confusing when it comes to defining state waters.

Tom Tebb, Ecology's central region director, said he considers Amon Wasteway state water. But because it is a wasteway, Ecology doesn't regulate it when it comes to shorelines or wetlands. Ecology only regulates water quality.

Woodward with Tapteal Greenway said he doesn't care where the water comes from. The fact is that water is there, and in the preserve and the lower portion of the east side, there is water year-round, he said.

The nonprofit group's primary focus has been on the west portion of the waterway that goes through the Amon preserve, where there is about 2.5 miles of trails.

What it is

The east portion of the Amon Wasteway, which brings spill and return flows from the Amon Canyon area, is the portion where Hayden Homes is considering a trail system.

The west branch of the wasteway, also called Amon Creek and East Badger Drain, drains irrigation spill and return flows from east Badger Canyon, travels through the preserve, and joins with the main, east branch of the wasteway inside Meadow Springs Country Club. The wasteway then flows into the Yakima River below Columbia Park Trail.

KID has the right to recapture and reuse water in the Amon Wasteway, Defoe said. Flows are already being reused to supply water to some KID customers. The wasteway has flows of 22,000 acre-feet in a year, or 55.5 cubic feet per second.

Perennial water can be seen just above the golf course, Defoe said. But it is a regional low point, so all of the applied irrigation water raises the groundwater table, causing water to emerge on the surface.

KID officials say some Tri-Citians have "environmental generational amnesia," assuming that because there is seepage now, that must mean there is a creek. They don't realize the water is from irrigation.

"We are about protecting the environment too," Freeman said. "We waste a lot of water there, and then the community kind of grew around it and thinks it's the Garden of Eden."

The dispute between KID and the Department of Fish and Wildlife isn't new. At one point, Freeman said, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and others wanted fish ladders installed in the golf course. But it was proven that the wasteway is poor habitat for fish, he said.

However, more information was needed on the west fork of the wasteway. A biologist hired by the Yakima Basin Joint Board is studying the west fork to determine habitat quality for fish. Consulting biologist David Child said he will collect data this spring, summer and early fall.

He will use a similar approach as when he looked at the wasteway in 2009 and determined poor habitat for fish existed, in part because the average daily temperatures during the summer were too high for salmonids.

Right now, the water course is being managed in a way that doesn't provide fish habitat, Harvester said. But it could be better than it is now and become an attractive amenity for the area with a greenway belt and parks. It doesn't have to be irrigation or fish, he said. Both can coexist.

Finding a solution

Who will ultimately decide isn't clear. Richland city officials are leaving it up to Hayden Homes to determine which agencies the developer needs to work with on the wasteway.

The city planning commission heard about four hours of public testimony at a recent meeting before voting to recommend the city council approve the preliminary plat.

The zoning change was approved in a 4-2 vote, but needed one more vote for a recommendation to be made because a majority of the full nine-person commission was needed.

The Richland City Council is expected to consider the preliminary plat and zoning change at its May 20 meeting.

There won't be another open record hearing, since the planning commission held that, said Rick Simon, Richland's development services manager. But the council can decide to allow for public comment on the record.

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