Yakima County, WA: Judge OKs City Water Settlement



A Yakima County Superior Court judge Thursday approved a settlement affecting the city of Yakima's water rights.

Judge Walter Stauffacher's action resolves the city's principal claim in the 25-year-old Aquavella water-rights case.

The settlement forces Yakima to agree to a nearly 50 percent cut in its irrigation water rights the next 10 years for an aging irrigation system that serves east Yakima. The system, known as the general system, serves more than one-quarter of all city irrigation users.

The settlement, which the city tentatively reached last August after a year of private talks with state Ecology and federal Interior Department officials, forces the city to speed up planning for one of two expensive options.

The city can either improve its existing irrigation system so it can deliver a smaller amount of water more efficiently, or it can convert the city's drinking-water system so customers can use that water for irrigation as well as domestic consumption.

One council member, Lynn Buchanan, has adamantly opposed the conversion option. Instead, he argues the city should use federal block grant funds to rebuild the general system, rather than raising rates to convert the domestic system for irrigation purposes.

Other city officials, however, say rates would still have to be increased to finance a bond to rebuild the system. That cost has been estimated at $14.5 million, and the federal money estimated at $1.5 million for next year cannot be used to finance a bond, City Manager Dick Zais said.

Conversion of the domestic system would cost more than $20 million.

The council intends to hold a public hearing on the matter in the near future. A date has not been set.

Meanwhile, Mayor Mary Place hailed the settlement as a key step in preserving the city's right to withdraw water from the Naches River.

"This is a wonderful result for Yakima," she said. "It provides the certainty the city needs to make realistic plans about the future of the water systems."

Remaining city irrigation users about 7,800 out of 11,000 receive their water through a variety of private ditch companies and aren't affected by the settlement.

Yakima and several other major water users entered settlement talks after Stauffacher ruled that large users had to give up water rights that had not been used for a consecutive five-year period. Severe leakage of water through the city's general irrigation system could have constituted failure to use the water.

Under the terms of the settlement, the city will receive 8,030 acre-feet of water at its Nelson diversion on the Naches River near the twin bridges on Highway 12.


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