Studies, studies and more studies: Time to Get Back on Course Set in '79 for Water Storage

Yakima-Herald Editorial

Posted 12/18/02

Feb. 20, 1979. It was one of those dreary, rain-swept winter days in the state capital. Gov. Dixy Lee Ray called a press conference to announce a bold new plan to "resolve water supply shortages" in the Yakima River Basin.

With Yakama Tribal Council Chairman Watson Totus at her side, Ray said the state and Yakama Nation would work together to pursue new water storage facilities built primarily with federal funds. The effort would become known as the Yakima River Basin Enhancement Project.

Estimated price tag at the time for up to five new reservoirs: $390 million.

Said Totus: "The next step will be to request Congress to enact federal legislation authorizing a feasibility study of the grand design ..."

Now fast forward to December 2002.

The project is still plodding along at the local, state and federal levels. There still aren't any new reservoirs, but there have been plenty of studies. And along the way debate about possible new storage facilities was supplemented by the call for more emphasis on conservation to stretch available water supplies.

Now yet another study is on the table, a four-year, $1.9 million look at the basin and its water needs. The conclusions echo what we basically already knew: The basin needs to use what water it has more efficiently and there is a pressing need for more storage facilities.

And how the price tag for addressing this oft-studied problem has changed over the years.

Estimated price tag now for conservation efforts alone is in excess of $400 million, more than those original five reservoirs envisioned by Ray and Totus would have cost.

The projected cost of new storage, based on the sites that could be selected, now exceeds $2 billion.

What a price we pay for delay, assuming the badly needed storage facilities ever do get past the study and talk stage. And the longer it takes to meet very demonstrated, studied needs, the more it will cost.

The latest draft plan is the local response to a 1998 state watershed planning law passed by the Legislature. The law placed the responsibility for charting the future in each watershed in the hands of local citizens. It established an umbrella group made up of Kittitas, Yakima and Benton county governments, larger cities and irrigation districts.

The Yakama Nation dropped out of the tri-county group three years ago, contending the group's majority of irrigators and elected officials would override its interests. They also criticized the consultant selected to perform detailed studies for the planning group.

The planning group will meet today to finalize the plan and then hand it off to county commissioners in Kittitas, Yakima and Benton counties.

This plan provides a start to finding answers that have eluded the basin for years, despite a variety of studies, water conservation efforts, and improved water quality, said Jim Milton, executive director of the Tri-County Water Resource Agency, the body created to receive state planning money.

The county commissioners will conduct hearings on the plan, likely during the first quarter of 2003, before they adopt it. Once that is done, the plan will be handed off to a number of local, state and federal agencies that would implement its features as projects are identified and funding sought.

But let this be the last study. We know what the problems are and what potential solutions could be.

It's time for the action and vision Ray and Totus had on that winter day nearly 24 years ago in the state capital.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Robert Bickler, Sarah Jenkins and Bill Lee.


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