Those who have pending applications will need to provide mitigation water
The Department of Ecology will consider new water rights applications in the Moxee and Wide Hollow areas for the first time in more than 12 years, but there will be a price.
Farmers, developers and others with pending water rights applications -- some filed decades ago -- will be required to provide mitigation water to offset their new use before their application can be approved.
Ecology's announcement Monday relies on a study released last year by the U.S. Geological Survey that showed pumping from underground aquifers draws water from the Yakima River and contributes to surface water shortages in the basin. The study looked at wells in use that are taking water already claimed by senior water right holders -- the Yakama Nation and farmers in the Yakima Irrigation Project.
Previously, only those making new requests in upper Kittitas County had to address mitigation in applying for water rights in the entire Yakima basin. Many observers said, however, that it was just a matter of time before Ecology imposed the mitigation requirement elsewhere in the basin.
Letters were sent late last week to 116 applicants informing them their applications now are being considered but with the mitigation caveat, Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder said.
"Under the current scenario, (their) water rights request would likely harm the river or cause a shortage at a certain time," Redfield-Wilder said. "It may not be immediate but it will be felt."
She said Ecology will be considering permits in the Moxee and Wide Hollow sub-basins as a pilot project to see what issues may arise. Requests for water rights range from irrigation needs for farms to water for potential residential developments.
About 300 applications for water rights in Benton County are among the 1,160 Yakima Basin water right requests waiting to be reviewed by Ecology, Redfield-Wilder said.
The applicants in the Moxee and Wide Hollow sub-basins will have 90 days to respond to Ecology, she said. It may take some time before Benton County applicants have their chance for review of pending water rights applications, most of which are for ground water.
Response to the announcement was lukewarm from some elected officials in the Yakima Valley who have criticized Ecology for standing in the way of new water-rights requests. County commissioners and legislators have argued the policy hinders economic development.