Needed: More water for everyone in Yakima Valley

The News Tribune

Proposed legislation would secure more water storage in the Yakima River Valley.
Proposed legislation would secure more water storage in the Yakima River Valley. Courtesy, Yakima Basin Conservation Campaign

Some of America’s richest farmland lies just over the Cascade Mountains in the Yakima River Valley. It provides most of the nation’s apples and hops, and pulls billions of dollars into the state economy.

It’s also fragile, as this year’s unprecedented drought demonstrated. The valley’s reservoir system is roughly a century old; even in the best of years, it doesn’t deliver enough water to go around. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has introduced a measure that would bring the system into the 21st century; the Senate should pass it.

Her bill would put the U.S. government behind the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a combination of irrigation, reservoir and habitat improvements. The legislation is backed by an improbably broad coalition that includes farmers, environmentalists, the Yakama Indians, fishermen, Republican and Democratic leaders.

A lot of those people are normally in the habit of squabbling with each other. Their unanimity in this case reflects the fact that the Integrated Plan pretty much makes everyone happy.

Older proposals – bitterly opposed by environmentalists – were largely irrigator-driven and focused on making dams higher and reservoirs bigger.

This one is smarter and more complex. It’s designed to satisfy farmers, Yakama treaty rights and fish.

One project would allow water users to pump – at their own expense – large quantities of water now trapped in Kachess Lake near Snoqualmie Pass. A new reservoir would be created south of Ellensburg on the Yakima River. Two dams would be eventually raised. Another strategy would use spring floods to charge aquifers that would seep into the river through late summer.

These projects would provide insurance against the new kind of drought the valley experienced this year – a shortage not of rain, but of snow. The Yakima Valley has historically relied on melting mountain snowpack to replenish its reservoirs during the growing season. But a warming climate portends less snow, so the system must trap more winter and spring rains.

The fish should be particularly happy. More water means more river flow, which means higher survival rates.

And new passages created under the plan would restore perhaps 100 miles of salmon spawning habitat. The basin’s dams were built without fish passages, cutting migrating salmon off from spawning beds in high Cascade streams.

The Yakama Nation has been reintroducing long-vanished sockeye salmon to the river system. Wildlife biologists believe the Integrated Plan could result in the largest sockeye runs in the country – a potential magnet for sports fishing and tourism.

The Integrated Plan would cost a projected $3.8 billion, spread out over 30 years. That cost would be borne by water users, local and state government – and the feds.

Without federal funds, it’s out of reach. The U.S. government has a time-honored role in building river infrastructure, from canals to dams to levees. It has a role here, too. Cantwell’s legislation deserves the support of Congress.