Yakima Basin water program to be tested


This story was published 5/22/2002

By Mike Lee
Yakima Herald staff writer

An emergency process that successfully eased water transfers during last year's drought is being tested as a way to continue encouraging water transfers in the Yakima Basin.

Based on success in 2001, the program that bloomed during dry times could help create a "water bank" as a resource marketplace for the farm-dependent valley, which is Washington's largest watershed. Also, it aims to streamline the transfer process to help meet water shortages.

The concept, however, is getting tepid support from some in the irrigation community, who say water banking isn't useful in the water-short basin unless there's a new reservoir to store the water.

And it highlights long-running contentions between environmental groups who demand a new approach to resource management and development groups who want more storage such as the proposed Black Rock reservoir north of Sunnyside.

"That's not necessarily the best or least expensive solution," Katherine Ransel of American Rivers said of a massive dam. "If we can solve some of these problems by looking at alternatives that people haven't thought about because they didn't think they were workable, we are way far ahead."

Ransel represented environmental interests on the Conservation Advisory Group, a diverse coalition formed by the federal government to assess water problems in the Yakima Valley. It issued a report Tuesday that shows last year's multi-agency efforts helped transfer substantially more water than during the previous drought.

In 2001, said the report, an emergency program helped transfer 23,039 acre feet of crop water and another 40,000 acre feet of water used to transport crop water to farms. Seven years earlier, only 3,739 acre feet of crop water were transferred.

The basic structure of the new transfer program will be used in future droughts, but the working group also wants to expand its success in nondrought years such as this one.

Conservancy boards established by the state Legislature also can transfer water, however, Ransel said the complex legal history of Yakima Basin water and the valley's reliance on the Bureau of Reclamation require special rules.

The major question, of course, is whether parties forced to work together during the drought can maintain their momentum. They face substantive challenges: Emergency drought relief money is gone, the state no longer is using an expedited permitting system and federal fish protection agencies will want to have more influence on operations that last longer than one season.

Jim Trull, manager of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, said the idea of increased transfers isn't generating much excitement among irrigators. "There just isn't the energy to work on something like that in a normal water year," he said. "You look at things differently in a crisis."


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