Yakima Basin Needs Water Storage Answers

Published in the Herald-Republic

Yakima, WA - 3/26/02 - Anyone doubting the precarious nature of the Yakima River Basin's water supply need only check what's been going on the past several months.
* Last summer the area chalked up the worst drought on record, forcing the rationing of irrigation water for many agricultural users.

* The drought was immediately followed by one of the wettest winters on record, with precipitation in the basin, measured at the reservoirs, now running at about 145 percent of normal for March. Precipitation at the basin's five reservoirs year to date is still at 116 percent of average.

It would be easy to see only the abundance of water we now have, forget about how dry things were last summer and let a false sense of security once again lure us into more delays and postponing of long-range planning for additional storage in the basin.

Area irrigators and state and federal officials are moving ahead to keep that from happening because, if anything, this very wet winter is an excellent example of why more storage is needed.

A rule of thumb is that the basin can produce about 3 million acre feet of water in a given year's time, but its five storage reservoirs can only store 1 million acre feet -- the amount of water needed to cover an acre with water 1 foot deep.

So whether wetness in the mountains is average or above average, we can still only store about the same amount at any given time. Let dry winters follow dry summers and things start getting tense.

Wouldn't it be nice if some of this winter's abundant water could be stashed in expanded or new storage facilities as a hedge against drought, which has occurred with increasing regularity in the last 25 years.

In the meantime, until added storage in the basin is a reality, a couple of other reservoir projects would help ease the strain on existing facilities.

A proposed Ahtanum-area reservoir at Pine Hollow would impound enough water from Ahtanum Creek to serve 8,000 acres of farmland for two years.

A proposed Black Rock reservoir in an area 40 miles east of Yakima, near the junction of State routes 241 and 24, would be larger than all five of the existing basin storage reservoirs combined. It would draw water from the Columbia and in so doing provide a firmer water supply to the Roza Irrigation District while freeing up Yakima River water to improve flows for fish.

Discussions with Gov. Gary Locke and area legislators last week show both projects are still in the planning and discussion stages, but also still on track.

There's a new sense of urgency in water planning these days because the entire state felt the sting of drought last summer, and didn't like it. Locke has now stated on several occasions that increased storage capabilities is a statewide priority.

It won't happen quickly and it won't be cheap. But the economic consequences of drying up the state's top industry are too severe to postpone the need to update storage, particularly in the Yakima Basin.

We always like to point out when talking about storage that those five reservoirs that are the lifeline of the Yakima Basin haven't been expanded since Lake Cle Elum came on line in 1933 -- the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his first term as president.

That should be enough said about the need to upgrade and expand. Expansion of Bumping Lake, which came on line in 1910, is one option and there are others, but expanded storage must happen to meet all the competing water needs of the basin.

So don't let the wet winter fool you. We've only bought another year of adequate water supplies, but let dry summers be followed by dry winters and we're back in the box again.


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