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Friday, May 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jay Schwartz and Tom Soeldner: Public loses if water grab legislation passes

By Jay Schwartz and Tom Soeldner

The latest water grab in Eastern Washington – S. 1694, now moving through Congress – has more holes than a wormy apple. S. 1694 would pump Lake Kachess, mostly for a single, junior-water-right irrigation district in the Yakima Basin. Peeling back this Yakima bad apple exposes hole after hole of risks, water waste, unanswered questions, false promises and financial woe.

Can you imagine lowering Lake Coeur d’Alene eight stories? Consider impacts on recreation and property values. Now picture draining Lake Kachess in the Cascade Mountains. Water levels would drop by 80 feet below the lake’s natural water level, transforming the lake into a mud pit.

The public loses. Lake Kachess campground and boat launch, an hour from Seattle, are perhaps the busiest in Washington. Draining Lake Kachess would damage bull trout populations in the Kachess Basin, ruining the Wenatchee National Forest campground and lake recreation.

Not waiting for Congress to act, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rushed forward with an emergency proposal to use huge diesel engines on barges to pump down Lake Kachess – threatening to create water, air and noise pollution. The initial $58 million estimate quickly ballooned to more than $100 million, prompting the Roza Irrigation District on Dec. 15 to reject the project. But it’s not dead. An even larger pumping project is already part of a Yakima Plan that S. 1694 would authorize.

In response to public outcry, proponents of S. 1694 made changes. More changes are needed. As now written, S. 1694 imperils Lake Kachess and other important wildlife habitats and waters in the Yakima Basin. One such place is Bumping Lake near Mpunt Rainier National Park.

Bumping Lake Basin supports magnificent ancient forests and habitat for spotted owls and bull trout. S. 1694 would authorize the study of new dams to ensure water for irrigation. A new Bumping Lake dam would drown and destroy these magnificent cathedral forests.

Surprisingly, despite the 2015 drought, S. 1694 retreats from water conservation and metering provisions included in the 1994 law it seeks to amend. And Yakima’s Wapato Project is considered one of the worst-managed irrigation districts in the nation.

Drought for Eastern Washington farmers is not unprecedented. During the past 100 years, senior water-right holders in the Yakima Basin have received 100 percent of their water. During drought, water for junior holders may be interrupted. Rationing has been imposed on junior water-right holders about once every four years over the last 20 years.

Some juniors gamble by planting orchards. Juniors should be planting crops appropriate for potentially interrupted water supplies.

Junior irrigators demand more water. Taxpayers need accountability – and an end to water waste.

The Water Research Center, at the request of the Washington Legislature, concluded the proposed Yakima water-storage projects failed to generate any positive returns. The Bumping project lost 82 cents for every $1 spent; Wymer dam, 91 cents; the Kachess project, 54 cents; and the Keechelus pipeline, 80 cents.

Who pays? Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Yakima, is working hard in Olympia on SB 5628, which would burden state taxpayers with these financially wasteful Yakima irrigation projects. If S. 1694 becomes federal law, pressure will intensify in Olympia for taxpayers to fund Yakima water projects.

S. 1694 is based on the 2012 Yakima Plan written by the Bureau of Reclamation and the state’s Office of Columbia River within the Department of Ecology. The bureau and state office circumvented federal law requiring open meetings, chartering, public involvement and reporting. Instead, these two dam-building agencies carefully selected the Yakima Workgroup, whose members include bureau and office representatives, and others with special interests that benefit from a closed process and proposed plan.

Over 30 local, state and national organizations, and impacted homeowners, oppose the 2012 Yakima Plan, and 1,500 people submitted letters and emails in opposition. All were ignored. Repeating history’s mistakes, the bureau and office delayed notifying impacted property owners until major decisions were made.

In summary, after a century of mismanagement of the Yakima Irrigation Project, Washington taxpayers should not have to pay for uneconomical and environmentally destructive projects. Rather than draining Lake Kachess and harming other wildlife and outdoor-recreation values, irrigators should be required to meet water conservation targets, utilize water markets and other tools to share water between senior and junior districts, invest in aquifer storage where appropriate, and construct fish passage where such engineering is feasible. With proper amending, S. 1694 could help close – rather than perpetuate – the water frontier in the Yakima Basin.

Jay Schwartz is active with Friends of Lake Kachess and a financial analyst in Seattle. Tom Soeldner is a retired Lutheran pastor working to protect waters in the Columbia River Basin.

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