Group agrees to outlines for more water for fish, farmers

YAKIMA -- Only time will define its significance. But a group of water interests took the first step Friday toward a better future for the Yakima River Basin, agreeing to the outlines of a plan for more water for fish, farmers and communities.

"I think it is a big step forward," commented Ron Van Gundy, a retired Roza Irrigation District manager who has worked on basin water issues for years. "I think it shows basinwide support for what we are doing and gives us momentum to move forward."

Support wasn't unanimous and some heartburn and uncertainty remain about the package that could cost more than $5 billion should it all be authorized over the next three decades.

But there was enough agreement to move toward a closer look at adding new storage, providing fish access to cold, clear water in mountain lakes, conserving irrigation water, broadening a water bank and setting water aside for communities to grow.

The plan may yet be expanded to include additional wilderness designations at the request of environmental groups, taking it beyond a water-enhancement package.

An economic analysis of the plan outlined as much as $3.7 billion in potential benefits in the form of agricultural production, better runs and economic growth in the three-county basin.

With a more reliable water supply, farm earnings could grow by $310 million per year and add 14,000 total jobs.

The plan seeks to assure farmers 70 percent of a full supply in drought years, which could be more frequent because of the effects of climate change on snowpacks.

The basin, stretching from Kittitas County to Benton County through some of the most intensively farmed areas in the country, has seen a drought in five of the last 18 years and nine times since 1977.

Pieces of the plan could land before Congress for initial approval in as little as 18 months, according to representatives of the state Department of Ecology and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The agencies launched the planning effort over the last 18 months that culminated in Friday's go-ahead decision.

Development of the plan cost about $2 million in state and federal funds.

Friday's decision means representatives of farmers, tribal interests, fish managers, local, state and federal agencies will begin development of a final plan and an environmental review.

A final plan should be ready in February.

The headline pieces of the plan are new and expanded storage, including expansion of Bumping Lake, northwest of Yakima, to 190,000 acre-feet from its current 33,000 acre-feet.

The other major storage is 162,500 acre-feet at Wymer on Lmuma Creek in the Yakima River Canyon north of Yakima.

Environmental groups have long opposed new storage in general and expansion of Bumping Lake in particular because of the effects on old-growth timber and wildlife habitat.

Michael Garrity of Seattle, a representative of American Rivers on the group working toward the plan, said environmental groups may not oppose new storage if the package of improvements is broad enough to support long-term viability of fish runs and other ecological benefits for the watershed.

"You have these conservation groups seriously considering not being endeared about a reservoir, but letting it go as part of the package," Garrity told the group. "That hasn't happened before."

Garrity said the groups he's consulting are reviewing a potential land element that could include additional designations of wilderness and wild and scenic rivers that would preserve those areas from development.

The Yakama Nation, considered another pivotal player, also supported the plan as long as there is no authorization for drawing water from the Columbia River. However, the plan calls for a feasibility study in a few years that would look at how water from the Columbia could be brought to the Yakima Valley.

Support also came from irrigation districts, the three counties in the region, and fishery agencies. Dave Brown, water and irrigation manager for the city of Yakima, said the City Council likely will support the plan at its next meeting.

One dissenting vote came from Jeff Thomas, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the plan contains too many uncertainties for improving migratory fish populations and would damage spotted owl habitat at Bumping Lake and sage grouse habitat in the Wymer footprint.

"The fish are still getting the scraps," Thomas told the group.

He also questioned why the plan doesn't deal with groundwater issues, which led to a moratorium on new wells in upper Kittitas County. The ban, imposed about the time the work group began meeting, was prompted by new domestic wells that are taking water belonging to irrigators and fish.