Fighting over water does not get you more water, but collaboration might, and that is the approach a work group of forward-thinking irrigators, environmentalists, the Yakama Nation and local and state government is taking in the Yakima River Basin.
After a year in which some irrigators received less than half the water they have rights to and with the prospect of even deeper cuts next year if weather patterns continue, members have developed an innovative plan that provides for more water storage, conservation and new fish passage.
The proposal will help sustain a $4.5 billion farm economy that has reached its limits unless water can be managed in new ways. Doing nothing, participants agreed, would lead to a future no one wants, except for lawyers who have been litigating one lawsuit or another over basin water for the last eight years.
The work of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan work group got an endorsement Thursday from the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, which passed a bill from Sen. Maria Cantwell that would authorize federal participation.
S. 1694 covers the first 10 years of a 30-year plan projected to cost $3.8 billion, which would be split among the irrigators and the state and federal governments.
Among the major expenditures are construction of a new, much higher dam at Bumping Lake, and expansion of the Cle Elum Reservoir, with new provisions for fish passage that would reopen spawning grounds to a sockeye salmon run that once numbered 800,000.
Pumps would move water from stream to stream as needed, tap allocated but inaccessible storage and add underground storage.
Water exchanges this year between parched streams and those with a little to share helped build the trust it will take to complete such a complicated, long-term plan.
Sadly, but predictably, the willingness of the irrigators to cover a significant portion of the expense will be one of its biggest vulnerabilities in Congress. Farmers elsewhere accustomed to getting cheap federal water do not want the Yakima plan to establish a model they may be called upon to adopt.
The Yakima Basin plan is another example of the good work done in the Inland Northwest when competing interests come together to solve problems.
A plan developed by conservation groups working with communities and industry will transform 54,000 acres in the Colville National by combining tree harvest, thinning, controlled burning, and stream restoration.
Avista renewed its dam permits on the Clark Fork and Spokane rivers using the recommendations of other community, conservation, tribal and commercial groups.
In each case, participants recognized that greater demands on the region’s natural resources cannot be reconciled without cooperation. Other areas in the West facing similar challenges are copying the successes here.
With a 30-year time frame, there will be plenty of time for modification as the Yakima Basin plan unfolds. But the time to start is now.
To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.