Water Users Being Left High and Dry


Yakima, WA - 6/12/04 - The water shortage will soon be felt across a larger area of the Yakima River Basin.

Some 200 water users will have to stop using water this summer so it is available to farmers in the Yakima Irrigation Project, according to a judge's order signed Thursday.

A dry winter and spring will leave some farmers with an 82 percent supply of water in 2004.

The order affects water users that are outside the boundaries of the irrigation project and have water rights that were issued after 1905. They include the city of Roslyn, summer cabin owners, permanent residents, nonprofit camps and ranchers.

The irrigation project's water right has a priority date of May 10, 1905.

State water law requires that newer water rights, also known as junior rights, must be reduced so the needs of older, senior rights can be met.

Backers of the request said the issue is of vital importance to farmers who pay for maintenance of the project reservoirs that store the water.

"This is not an issue of spending a weekend in the cabin. It is whether a farmer stays in business or goes broke," Roza Irrigation District attorney Tom Cowan asserted during Thursday's hearing in Yakima County Superior Court.

The 72,000-acre Roza, which has junior rights and is facing a shortage this summer, sought the shut-off with the support of other irrigation districts.

State Ecology Department officials did not object to the order, signed by Judge pro tem Walter Stauffacher.

Roslyn would appear to be OK this summer. The city has obtained temporary water supplies to meet its municipal needs from developers of the Suncadia resort in the Cle Elum area, said the city's attorney, Adam Gravley of Seattle. Suncadia is the large resort formerly known as MountainStar that is being developed in the area.

And one irrigation district wants to come to the rescue of the nonprofit camps.

A Selah-Moxee Irrigation District attorney told Stauffacher the 7,000-acre district is prepared to transfer water to the summer camps, which include Camp Primetime for seriously ill children and those operated by the Boy Scouts, YMCA and First Presbyterian Church.

Jim Davis of Yakima, representing the camps as well as the Selah-Moxee, said the camps are preparing for their summer seasons. Cutting off water now would pose a severe hardship.

"I ask the court to consider the effects on kids who won't be able to enjoy a camping opportunity this summer," Davis told Stauffacher. "All of the camps have contracts in place with vendors."

It was unclear Thursday whether the district has enough unused water available to meet the camps' needs. The water isn't currently being used by the district because of a diversion dam failure a few years ago through which a portion of the district had been served. That dam has not been repaired.

Davis said after the hearing he anticipates receiving requests from other junior water users to join the camps in seeking some transferred water.

A decision on allowing the transfer could come as early as next week, federal officials said.

A standing committee of the Bureau of Reclamation, irrigators, fish agencies, the Yakama Nation and the state considers transfer requests and makes recommendations to the judge.

Stauffacher will make the final decision on the transfer in his capacity as the judge overseeing the basin water rights adjudication case. The state Department of Ecology filed the case in 1977 to sort out all claims to surface water in Yakima, Kittitas and Benton counties.

Thursday's order is similar to one imposed by Stauffacher during the 2001 drought. But this time, irrigation districts requesting the shut-off opposed continued domestic water use or water for the camps.

Cowan, the Roza's attorney, said those affected have had ample time since 2001 to obtain a firm water right.

But Gravley, Cle Elum's attorney, said the process is long and expensive. Three years, he said, is too short a period of time. He called for a transition period to allow continued use until the post-1905 users find a permanent solution.

Cowan seized on the cost issue, saying Roza farmers are paying for the storage system and spent $2 million in 2001 to purchase water during the basin's worst water shortage.

"They want us to continue to pay for the project and the water storage and let them take water for free," he said. "That is not equitable."

The order signed by Stauffacher takes effect when water stored in the five project reservoirs must be released to assure all downstream demands are met. That condition could come within the next few days.

The order will remain in effect until Oct. 31, two weeks after the project irrigation season ends.



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