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Environment | Water

A Water Plan For Fish, Families And Farmers

Turn on your faucet, and you’re pretty much guaranteed water will pour out. But managing the water that’s running down our mountainsides and into our streams is not that simple, especially in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

Yakima Basin | Wikimedia Commons: Shannon1

Historically, different groups have fought for their right to use as much water as they needed. There were the farmers, environmentalists, developers and the Yakama Nation tribe.

Combative court cases and political in-fighting led to a my-way-or-the-highway atmosphere for nearly 40 years.

But all that changed in the Yakima Basin about three years ago. People began to realize they weren’t getting anywhere alone. And if they didn’t come up with solutions soon, everyone could suffer irreparable losses. Fish could disappear from the river. Farmers could lose their orchards. People could be stopped from building homes or businesses.

That’s when a group of around 30 stakeholders headed up by the Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation came together to find a solution that would appease concerns. What they’ve decided on is a massive undertaking, but one most think has a good chance to succeed. The Washington Department of Ecology has named the plan a model for future watershed management in the state. And now, groups in Oregon and Idaho are closely watching to see if they might be able to come up with collaborations of their own.

The Yakima area plan outlines seven objectives:

1. Improving fish passage at existing reservoirs. It’s been decades since salmon have swum all the way to the headwaters of the Yakima River. Before the river was dammed, millions of fish were supported by the Yakima Basin. Now after 40 years of work, 20,000 salmon are regularly swimming partway up the river, says Phil Rigdon, deputy director of Yakama Nation’s Department of Natural Resources.

Fish ladders will be added to existing dams to help salmon reach the upper headwaters of the Yakima River. Tank-equipped trucks will divert salmon and steelhead around the dams.

These additions won’t just help salmon, says American Rivers’ Michael Garrity. Resident bull trout have been trapped above the dams. The new systems will help bull trout mingle with other populations that live below the dams.

Fish passage will be added to dams at: Clear Lake, Cle Elum, Bumping Reservoir, Rimrock Reservoir, Keechelus Lake and Kachess Lake.

2. Protecting and enhancing habitat. The Bureau of Reclamation will purchase several lands to enhance habitat protection: 46,000 acres in the middle and lower Teanaway River Basin, 15,000 acres in the Yakima River Canyon, and 10,000 acres at the Little Naches River headwaters.

The plan also will improve salmon spawning habitat and reconnect side channels to main rivers.

3. Expanding and building new reservoirs. This will be a great security for Yakima Valley farmers. New reservoirs will create more certainty in the water supply, especially in drier years.

Farmer Jerry Haak’s apple nursery.

Reservoirs will be able hold more water during wetter years. Right now farmer Jerry Haak says the extra water is lost to the ocean. New reservoirs can store this water for drier years.

This is the first time the environmental group American Rivers has agreed to building a new dam, the Wymer Dam and Pump Station. American Rivers’ Michael Garrity says his group signed on because the Wymer Dam could lead to removal of the Roza Dam on the Yakima River.

The Wymer Dam will create a 162,500-acre-foot of storage. The plan will also expand two existing reservoirs. Lake Kachess will pump an additional 200,000 acre-feet of water during drought years. (This storage is not working right now.) Bumping Lake Reservoir will be enlarged to add 164,500 acre-feet of storage.

4. Storing groundwater. The plan would use surface water to recharge aquifers. Water from canals would be diverted onto fields. That would seep into the ground to be stored for later use. It could also be returned to the Yakima River, at cooler temperatures beneficial to fish.

Learn More in Boise

Michael Garrity of American Rivers will be in Boise Thursday, May 17 to talk about the Yakima River restoration project.

When: 5:45-7 p.m.

Where: Boiler Room at Bardenay, 610 Grove St, Boise

Learn more:

5. Conserving more. This mostly applies to farmers. The plan asks farmers to install higher efficiency sprinklers and reduce evaporation, seepage and spills. It would also add lines or pipes to existing canals.

6. Creating water banks. In water banks, water becomes a commodity, like real estate that’s managed by the state Department of Ecology. Water banks are already being used in Kittitas County, Wash.

Water banking is all about water rights. The state has allotted a specific amount of water that can be taken out of rivers. No more. Senior water rights holders can sell their rights to those who are lower down on the water food chain. That way people who need water can have what’s not being used.

7. Improving existing facilities. Among other improvements, a pipeline will be built from Lake Keechelus to Lake Kachess. (This is commonly referred to as the K-to-K pipeline.) This will create more storage and bypass salmon spawning habitat in the Yakima River, where lower flows are necessary.

The plan will also reduce power generation diversions at Roza and Chandler Dams to help with out-migrating fish. The total cost for the project could cost more than $5 billion. Supporters say the cost of inaction will be steeper, if lawsuits lead to court-ordered action.

Other groups, like those around Idaho’s lower Boise River and in Oregon’s Deschutes and Hood River basins, are also working together to manage water. Yakima Basin leaders hope these efforts can spread to the rest of the Western United States.

Correction: May 17, 2012. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a federal agency in a partnership working to improve water resources in the Yakima River Basin. The agency is The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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