A Black Day for Black Rock Dam: Water programs may be put on hold
With voters in a foul mood about funding government projects, Gov. Gary Locke's administration has backed away from a $1 billion water program that could have meant money for Black Rock reservoir.
"We're no less committed," Jim Waldo, the governor's water adviser, said Wednesday. "We're just going to have to figure out how to do it a little differently given the situation."
As little as two weeks ago, a task force led by Waldo was working on draft legislation to raise certain water-system fees and energy taxes statewide to pay off water bonds. Such revenues would go into the state's capital construction fund and not the state operating budget, which is projected to fall short at least $2 billion.
Other projects included water supply, water-system quality, and fish and habitat programs. Black Rock stood to gain about $320 million from the proposed $1 billion bond. Backers hoped to use the money to gain matching federal funds in order to finish feasibility studies and begin an environmental review.
But the lesson from Election Day, Locke told a conference of watershed planners, was clear. Voters turned back the referendum's $7.8 billion gas-tax increase to pay for roads after legislators failed to solve the issue themselves in last year's session.
Locke prefaced his comment by saying a massive water project remains "a good proposal.
"But the $1 billion proposal comes at a nearly impossible time. ... There are serious limits on the willingness to make major new investments," Locke said.
Waldo said legislators, too, told him they weren't excited about considering an energy surcharge or per-household water system fee in what promises to be a difficult 2003 session.
Rep. Bruce Chandler, Granger Republican from the 15th District, said $130 million set aside for building fish recovery projects could be spent on Black Rock instead. Supporters say Black Rock will improve fish habitats by increasing stream flows.
Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, also said a variety of existing water-related programs, from salmon to swimming pools, should be scrutinized.
"We need to prioritize and decide if water storage or these other programs have a higher priority than, say, funding some community swimming pool," Honeyford said.
Honeyford said he will meet with Black Rock supporters to determine how much money they need and when they need it so chances to win federal matching funds aren't missed.
Gary Ballew, Benton County's point man on the reservoir, said Wednesday it was too early for dejection.
"It's a setback, but it's not a nail in the coffin," Ballew said.
Black Rock, he pointed out, is a long way from a construction phase. At an estimated cost of $1.8 billion, the project would double the amount of water available from existing reservoirs that are part of the Yakima Irrigation Project. Located about 40 miles east of Yakima, the reservoir would draw from the Columbia River.
Hurdles are significant: Environmentalists and fish-and-wildlife agencies are just a few of the groups that would have to be persuaded before the project could get off the ground.
The project, nevertheless, has gained momentum and more than $1 million for studies. Benton County stepped up first with a $500,000 investment. Yakima County agreed to a $100,000. The state Agriculture Department secured a $500,000 grant. Two local Farm Bureaus came up with smaller sums.
Peter Optekar of Moxee, co-chairman of a group favoring the reservoir, said he was surprised by the governor's decision not to push the water bond issue. Optekar, who is a member of Waldo's water task force, said there has been no inkling of the change in strategy since the election.
But the pressures on water in the Yakima River Basin won't wait for lawmakers, he said, arguing that population increases, endangered species' concerns and global warming are undermining agriculture.
"Without large water storage, we're going to rob the valley
of water and destroy any chance for prosperity," he said.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]