YAKIMA -- State and local officials are trying to answer the "what's next?" question in light of a groundbreaking water study that found that wells for new developments in the Yakima River Basin are taking water from those with more senior rights, including farmers and the Yakama Nation.
Department of Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant said earlier this his month that the agency wants to avoid a lawsuit by senior water-right holders seeking to limit water use by rural homeowners and some municipalities and industrial consumers.
"The stakes are obviously high for the basin," he told county commissioners Mike Leita of Yakima County and Paul Jewell of Kittitas County at a meeting Sturdevant requested and held at the Yakima Area Arboretum.
A Benton County commissioner was invited but did not attend.
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The most senior rights in the basin belong to the Yakama Nation and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which obtained all available surface water rights in 1905 to supply the three-county Yakima Irrigation Project.
Dawn Wiedmeier, deputy area manager for reclamation, said the agency is serious about protecting those rights, but is willing to cooperate on an alternative that would satisfy all parties.
"I haven't heard of anyone planning to go to court," she said in a telephone interview following the meeting. "I hope no one is willing to pull the trigger."
A group of farmers, tribal representatives, state and local agencies and environmental groups has been working for 18 months to find ways to improve the basin's water future, and the hope is their effort will make litigation unnecessary.
The group's goal is to make sure irrigators receive no less than 70 percent of a full supply in the future.
That effort will reach a turning point in the next 45 days when parties will decide whether to move forward with new storage, fish passage, aquifer storage, water banking and conservation -- all requiring billions of state and federal dollars to complete.
During the meeting with commissioners, Sturdevant said he will propose ways to resolve water conflicts before next spring, when the $7 million, 11-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey is formally completed.
"If we do it in a collaborative way that meets everyone's interest instead of a win-lose scenario, is where we want to go," Sturdevant said.
The groundwater study, first released in September, concluded water drawn from wells throughout the basin is drawing down the Yakima River -- water that belongs to farmers for irrigation and to the Yakama Nation for fishing.
The geological survey report found a connection between groundwater and surface water.
Pumping reduces surface water flows by about 200 cubic feet per second throughout the Yakima River.
The impact of groundwater use has been controversial, especially in upper Kittitas County, where a ban on new wells exempt from permits has been in effect for 16 months.
Ecology imposed the ban because water used by rural homes is hurting senior irrigation rights and stream flows.
Jewell said he wants to know whether Ecology's goal is to manage impacts from wells or prohibit new ones.
Sturdevant responded that he doesn't see a pro-hibition on new wells.
Exempt wells for homes, lawns and gardens, industrial use and livestock don't require state approval, but are subject to restrictions when surface water rights are reduced during a drought.
Such regulation already has been sought during the 2001 and 2005 droughts, but actual shutoffs were avoided by transfers of existing, senior rights.
The concept, called mitigation, may be employed in areas of the basin with information generated by the USGS study.
Tom Tebb, Ecology regional director in Yakima, said after the meeting that mitigation could be used in the processing of some 800 pending requests for new groundwater use.
Those requests have been on hold until the study was completed.