U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently added some much-needed momentum to the search for a solution to the Yakima River Basin's water needs.
Having folks at the highest level of federal government even acknowledge the struggles over water in our state is an accomplishment in itself.
Add to that Salazar's request for specific recommendations from a consortium of local representatives -- who have differing interests in water -- and we have one giant step for the Yakima River Basin's water woes.
Even more heartening -- Salazar put near-term deadline on the report. The recommendations are due to the federal reclamation commissioner by the middle of November. We're hoping the quick turn-around means Salazar shares our sense of urgency regarding Eastern Washington's water issues.
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The group making the recommendations spent two years coming up with a plan that would expand Bumping Lake near Chinook Pass and create a new reservoir in the Yakima River Canyon.
The price tag: $5 billion over the next three decades.
Group members, which includes tribal representatives, farmers, state and federal governments and environmentalists, got together when a five-year federal study found that no proposal made to date for water storage was feasible. That finding included the massive Black Rock reservoir proposal for storage of 1.7 million acre-feet of water.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings were also on hand to lend support to the issue. The governor has been a proponent for developing additional water storage in Eastern Washington. Hastings gets the credit for getting Salazar to the Mid-Columbia, including an airplane tour to help illustrate the region's water issues.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: Water is Eastern Washington's most critical need.
"It is increasingly becoming the liquid gold of the world economy," Salazar said.
Salazar applauded the diverse interests in the group for working together to come up with a plan that would create additional water storage, routes for fish to navigate the Yakima Basin's dams and improvements to habitat and water protection and water management policy.
Hastings and Gregoire urged the stakeholders to continue to put the greater good of water needs before their personal interests. For too many years, competing interests have fought over water, adding additional delays to any kind of action.
"It is important that everyone speak with one voice," Hastings said. "We will take it a step at a time and try to build momentum."
Cooperation and money are the keys to a long-term solution for the arid region. The Yakima River Basin has had five major droughts in 19 years.
The state Department of Ecology's Office of the Columbia River is leading the development of the plan. That office was created by the Legislature to increase water storage in the Columbia River System.
With Salazar's encouragement for action on some short-term projects, the group will focus on items that would be ready to go if the federal government finds some start-up money.
Of course, some environmental groups have already promised to fight any expansion of water storage, particularly at Bumping Lake. The idea that old-growth forests ought to take precedence over resolving Mid-Columbia water issues is flawed. Without water, there are no forests or any other living thing.
Despite the few naysayers, it's a big deal to have Salazar's interest and apparent support in improving water conditions for future generations of Yakima River Basin residents.
We appreciate the efforts of our lawmakers who continue to emphasize the need for a water plan in Eastern Washington and who do the work to get the plight heard at the top of the food chain.