The Yakima Basin drought may be the catalyst needed to move forward a project that would give Kennewick Irrigation District customers a more reliable source of water and keep more water in a critical stretch of the river during a drought.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to take another look at the electrification of the Chandler pump station, which the bureau owns and operates.
The station, about 11 miles downstream of the Prosser Dam, moves Yakima River water into KID’s main canal for delivery to area farmers and homeowners.
Adding electrical pumps that can be used in drought years instead of the current water-powered pumps isn’t a new idea. The multimillion-dollar project was authorized by a 1994 federal law. The bureau considered it and other options, such as moving KID’s Yakima River water diversion into the Columbia River, in the mid-2000s.
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But the pump project, one of many to compete for limited federal funding, never moved forward. The Yakima River didn’t experience any droughts for about a decade.
“It took a drought to make it a priority again,” said Chuck Freeman, the irrigation district’s manager.
This year, some Yakima Basin water users may only get 47 percent of the water they have a right to during non-drought years. KID officials expect to receive more, since the irrigation district benefits from the return flows of other Yakima Basin water users, but it won’t be a full supply.
Homeowners are being asked to limit watering to twice a week, for about 30 minutes each time.
In general, the Yakima Basin can expect a drought every five years, said Dawn Wiedmeier, the bureau’s area manager. Scientists say more frequent droughts can be expected in the future with climate change.
The original estimates from the mid-2000s put the cost of electrifying the pump station at $38 million to $42 million, said Seth Defoe, KID’s planning manager. While moving the point of diversion into the Columbia River is an option, it’s a much more ambitious and expensive project.
Paying for the pump station project and the electricity to run the new pumps during drought years is the bureau’s responsibility, both KID and bureau officials agree. That was spelled out in the 1994 federal law.
The irrigation district has been working on a variety of projects to conserve water and make canal operation more efficient. But none of those can leave as much water in the river as can be achieved with adding electrical pumps, Freeman said.
Hydraulic pumps have been used to deliver water since the system was first turned on in 1956. Using water instead of electricity represents huge savings.
“It makes sense when there is plenty of water, less so in a drought,” Defoe said.
The bureau has to pull out 1.25 buckets of water for every bucket of water delivered to the irrigation district to power the hydraulic pumps, said Jason McShane, KID’s engineering and operations manager.
The so-called drive water is returned to the river at the pumping station. The stretch, known as the Chandler Reach, can hit critically low water levels to the point where the water’s warmth acts as a barrier for migrating fish, Defoe said.
Additional water in the river could help sockeye salmon, which were reintroduced in the Yakima Basin in the early 2000s, migrate upstream during mid-summer.
How much water is in the river at the Prosser dam limits what KID can get for its customers. Right now, both the water customers use and the water that powers the Chandler pumps have to be come from above that federally-set minimum flow level.
In a drought year like this one, KID may take everything over the minimum flow level, and still not have enough water to meet customer needs, McShane said.
If electric pumps could move water during drought years, KID could get the water it has a right to and still leave more water in the critical stretch of the river, he said.
Using electrical pumps would leave the water in the river, creating greater flows between Prosser Dam and the Chandler pump station, McShane said. It could effectively double the amount of water in that section of the river, since the reach sometimes drops to flows below that of KID’s main canal.
KID and bureau officials have been discussing taking another look at the Chandler pump station electrification during the last week. They plan to put together a memorandum of agreement.
KID had been talking to the bureau about using some water set aside to add to in-stream flows for fish. That water was conserved for in-stream flows based on a 1994 federal law, but the law allows the irrigation district to use the water during a drought year.
Irrigation district officials would agree to allow that water to stay in the river for fish, but for this drought year only, Wiedmeier and Freeman said. This is the first drought year that the water could be used.
Ultimately, working with the bureau could mean a more secure source of water for KID customers in future droughts, Freeman said.
The bureau will bring the previous cost estimates up to present-day figures and take another look at the project and potential benefits, Wiedmeier said. That may have to wait until October, when the bureau starts its 2016 fiscal year. New federal legislation likely would be needed to move the project forward.
KID officials hope to have the bureau move through the design and environmental work sooner rather than later, with the goal of having electric pumps ready to use in five years, Freeman said.