Gov. Locke halts $1.8 billion Black Rock waterworks project


By Chris Mulick
Tri-City Herald Olympia bureau

TACOMA, WA-- Gov. Gary Locke on Tuesday put the kibosh on the $1 billion waterworks plan he first proposed a year ago.

Supporters of building a new $1.8 billion reservoir in the Yakima Basin were hoping Locke's Safe Water Initiative would have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to lure matching federal money to build the project.

"But the $1 billion proposal comes at a nearly impossible time," Locke told a group of water stakeholders and lobbyists.

The development comes as little surprise. The state faces a $2.1 billion budget deficit that was only beginning to come into focus a year ago.

And voters have given lawmakers little incentive to raise taxes after approving Initiative 776 -- which sought to lower local taxes in four counties -- and rejecting a $7.8 billion highway plan earlier this month.

"There are serious limits on the willingness to make major new investments," Locke said.

Black Rock supporters have been rapidly advancing their project's development and recently began work to examine whether the bedrock below the east Yakima County site would hold water adequately.

It's not clear whether a $1 billion package would have provided them with the money they needed anyway.

It is believed the state would need to put up about $400 million to $500 million to lure federal dollars to complete Black Rock.

But Locke's proposal also would have provided money to upgrade aging municipal water systems, buy water for fish while improving passage and boost water conservation efforts.

But that's all moot now as lawmakers turn their attention to far more modest plans.

"We'll be taking a few dollars here and a few dollars there," said Sen. Jim Honeyford, a Sunnyside Republican who may be named today as the Senate's point man on water policy issues.

Hope was hard to find but House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, argued a large public works project would be just the thing to get the economy restarted.

And Rep. Bruce Chandler, a Zillah Republican, said the Legislature should consider redirecting some of the approximately $130 million in the state's construction budget that now goes toward supporting fish recovery.

That's not likely to be a popular idea with the environmental community. Though there is some rethinking about long-held opposition to water storage, Black Rock and the proposed Lake Tapps reservoir in Western Washington look a lot like the traditional Grand Coulee-esque projects of yesteryear, said Josh Baldi, a lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council.

And beyond those, there are no other projects so far along in their development to consider.

"It's not entirely clear what actions we're proposing to fund," Baldi said. "Until we actually see what we're being sold, the environmental community is going to be skeptical."


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