Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed 2013-15 budget includes $23.6 million to help implement a comprehensive plan for how to address a deficit of water in the Yakima River Basin, including Benton, Yakima and Kittitas counties.
The money would pay for some of the early action items included in the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan to help restore fisheries and meet agricultural, municipal and domestic water needs in the Basin, according to the governor's policy brief issued this week.
Jim Trull, district manager for the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, said the amount of cooperation with the integrated plan has been "historic."
The group working on the plan includes representatives from the local, state and federal governments as well as irrigation districts and the Yakama Nation.
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"We have been struggling for years -- decades -- to increase water supply in the Yakima basin without success," Trull said. "Now we are to the point where we have nearly all stakeholders actively involved, all sitting at the table and talking constructively about how to do this."
Benton County Commissioner Jim Beaver said they have been working for years with the state and federal government to address the lack of water in the Yakima River Basin.
"We are going to continue to work on the plan," Beaver said. "We appreciate the fact that the governor has supported the plan."
Of the proposed $23.6 million, $20.9 million would help the Department of Ecology restore habitat, build fish passage, increase storage in Lake Cle Elum, pump water into reservoirs to improve in-stream flows and create a groundwater infiltration system.
It also would provide some money toward building a pipe between two Kittitas County lakes: Lake Keechelus, which experiences a greater snow pack, and Lake Kachees, which can store more water, said Joye Redfield-Wilder of the state Department of Ecology. Currently, some water must be released because there isn't enough storage in Lake Keechelus.
The state funding would show the federal government that the state is committed to the plan, she said.
A proposed $2 million in the governor's budget would jump start a water bank, Redfield-Wilder said. The idea of this market reallocation is that water rights can be purchased and then retired to offset water use.
It acts like a stock option offsetting new withdrawals, she said.
And the remaining $700,000 would pay for technical assistance to coordinate and implement the plan.
The whole plan includes seven pieces -- water conservation, habitat and watershed protection and enhancement, groundwater storage, surface water storage, reservoir fish passage, structural and operation changes for efficiency and storage, and market reallocation of water rights. Officials say this will help the entire Basin.
The plan tries to achieve a balanced approach in providing water for the economy and the environment, Redfield-Wilder said.
For Benton County, the issue is huge because of the importance of agriculture to the county's economy, Beaver said. The county grows almost 50 percent of the state's grapes, he said.
Without irrigated agriculture, there would be little here other than sagebrush, Trull said. Because of irrigated agriculture, other industries are able to thrive as well.
Officials estimate that agriculture contributes about $40 billion to the state's economy each year.
Making infrastructure changes high in the Basin ultimately will benefit those lower in the Basin, including Benton County, Redfield-Wilder said. It will provide people with more of an assurance that the water they need will be available to them.
Users with water rights issued after 1905 may only get a percentage of their water during drought years -- or none at all, Redfield-Wilder said. Water rights issued prior to 1905 are considered senior water rights.
The goal of the plan is to make sure even irrigation districts with junior water rights can get up to 70 percent of their normal amount of water during a drought year.
Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District will not benefit as much as some irrigation districts because about two-thirds of its rights are senior water rights, Trull said. The district covers around 94,000 acres near Granger, Sunnyside, Grandview, Prosser and Zillah.
The conservation efforts supported by the plan will help focus continued funding on efforts such as those the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District already has done separate from this plan, Trull said.