Phrases such as "historic meeting" and "it's time" got tossed around a lot Sunday, almost as much as the word "water."
Certainly, having U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, and federal Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Conner in Yakima together to talk about meeting future water needs could qualify.
But it's still to be determined whether the commitments -- from people who need to work together and from politicians to help pay for it -- will result in on-the-ground improvements in the Yakima River Basin for farmers, fish and communities.
It will be a tall order to come up with $5 billion -- a good chunk of it from a budget-conscious Congress -- during the next three decades to create new water storage and fish passage, improve habitat and watershed protection, and develop more water conservation and water marketing.
That's the plan a diverse group of Basin interests -- including tribal representatives, irrigators, local, state and federal governments and an environmental group -- came up with to meet the Basin's needs after almost two years of work.
The plan includes expansion of Bumping Lake in the Chinook Pass area and creating another reservoir in the Yakima River Canyon.
The Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology brought the group together after a five-year federal study of new water storage concluded none of the previous proposals, including the huge 1.7 million acre-foot Black Rock reservoir east of Yakima, were worth pursuing.
The current effort is aimed at finding a more comprehensive solution.
If the group can continue to stick together, there's a good chance for success, said Gregoire, who has been a champion for expanded water storage in Eastern Washington.
"We have the horsepower we need at the table," she told the more than 50 people crammed into a meeting room at J.M. Perry Institute on Sunday morning. "If we agree, we can get her done. If we disagree, we get nothing."
Hastings emphasized the need for all participants to continue to support the plan if success is to be achieved.
The water-short Yakima River Basin has struggled through five significant droughts in the past 19 years.
"It is important that everyone speak with one voice," Hastings said after the nearly 90-minute session. "We will take it a step at a time and try to build momentum."
Some environmental groups, however, already are promising to fight expanding storage, particularly at Bumping Lake. The reservoir northwest of Yakima has been a flashpoint for decades over preserving old-growth forests and the overall issue of new water projects.
Salazar was invited to Yakima by Hastings to hear about the water plan and take an airplane tour of the basin. He seemed to provide some of the needed momentum when he asked the local representatives to provide specific recommendations to Reclamation Commissioner Michael Conner by mid-November on projects that could be started more quickly.
Conner promised to carve out some money for the integrated plan once the priority list of projects is submitted to him.
"We have given out a lot of money for different things," Conner told the group. "We will try to put some money behind these projects."
Salazar, a former U.S. senator who has been Interior secretary since 2009, called the unanimous support by the work group a breakthrough for managing water, which is becoming critical not only in the arid West but across the world.
"It is increasingly becoming the liquid gold of the world economy," Salazar said.
Derek Sandison, who heads the state Department of Ecology's Office of the Columbia River and is helping guide development of the integrated plan, said the formal request from Salazar is in line with the timing for release of a draft environmental impact statement on the multi-faceted water plan.
He said the group already had agreed to support implementing the various projects in phases. Various elements of the plan would be tied together, such as fish passage at Basin dams, more water conservation, improved management of the federal Yakima Irrigation Project water delivery system and planning for new storage.
The storage elements include expanding Bumping Lake, northwest of Yakima, from 33,000 acre-feet to 190,000 acre-feet and developing a 162,500 acre-foot reservoir at Wymer on Lmuma Creek, 15 miles north of Yakima in the Yakima River Canyon.
Sandison, whose office was created by the Legislature to expand water storage in the Columbia River system, said the request by Salazar to develop some quick projects means the group will focus on some early-action items and have them finalized and ready to go.
Harry Smiskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, thanked the rest of the planning group for its efforts, saying the plan is meant to help those not yet born.
"The time of conflict has come to an end. We spent so many years arguing. We need to put that behind us," he said. "This is a process we can hold up to show people we can work together."
Michael Garrity, a representative of the environmental group American Rivers and a member of the work group, said his organization struggled to support a plan that has real benefits, but also trade-offs to the environment.
"We are for this because of the magnitude of benefits throughout the basin for fish and watershed restoration," he said. "It's important to make sure restoration and land protection is not neglected."
It was Garrity's group, with the support of eight other environmental organizations, that insisted about 71,000 acres of forest and shrub steppe habitat be protected as part of the plan.
Some environmentalists, however, aren't backing the plan.
John Osborn of Spokane, chairman of the Sierra Club Upper Columbia River group, cast doubt on the chances for more storage. He is not part of the work group, but he attended the meeting and said in an interview afterward that the federal government can no longer afford to erect new dams.
Osborn said water conservation, better irrigation efficiency and moving water around through water markets, are better approaches to meeting the needs.
"Despite the cheerleading today, it is unlikely we will see new storage in the Yakima River Basin," he said.