WHILE Puget Sound celebrates the removal of two old dams on the Elwha River, efforts are afoot to spend billions building two new dams in Washington state as part of the Yakima Plan.
The Yakima Plan was developed by a work group convened by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Washington State Department of Ecology, seeking a solution to the Yakima River basin’s water problems.
Salmon passage, wilderness protection, checkerboard land acquisition and some other plan elements deserve public support and funding. However, as state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, has noted, state taxpayers can’t afford to subsidize junior water-right irrigators with billions of dollars. “This just knocks the hell out of everything else we want to do,” Dunshee said to a Seattle Times news reporter recently, arguing that cheaper ways to address water needs could include better conservation.
More affordable options exist.
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The work group’s plan includes surface water storage, modifying existing reservoirs, fish passage, groundwater storage and many other capital projects.
Who will pay? Taxpayers, fish and wildlife, and people who love these places targeted with destruction. But for irrigators, water is nearly free.
What will the taxpayers get? The Bumping Lake dam would drown magnificent ancient forests adjacent to the William O. Douglas Wilderness — a natural space comparable to the Olympic’s Hoh River Valley. The Wymer dam would drown scarce and precious shrub-steppe habitat.
Water would go unused except in water-short years — at first. But irrigation expands to use available water. Then we’ll need another dam, and another.
Drought may occur for years. Drained of water after the first drought year, the dams would stand as empty bathtubs with mud flats stretching for miles.
Dam construction and maintenance are money losers for taxpayers. The 2012 Green Scissors report on wasteful, damaging federal projects includes both proposed Yakima dams.
Nationwide, dams are largely built out. Many are deteriorating and in disrepair. We can’t afford existing dams, let alone new ones.
There are better, less costly ways to remedy the imbalance between water demand and available water, including the following four points:
• Yakima irrigators haven’t paid for costs of the existing five federal dams. Market forces need to play a greater role to curb water waste.
• Waste not, want not. Water conservation in the Yakima should be mandatory, not optional.
• Large volumes of hay, fed by federal water projects, are exported to Japan for racehorses.
• In a water-scarce basin and with looming food-security issues, water-sensible crop selection is essential. Finally, canals and ditches need to be lined and piped to stop wasting precious water.
The work group has been lauded as the union of longtime foes. Look more closely at the behind-closed-doors dealings. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Ecology manipulated the Yakima process to achieve their desired outcome: new dams. Process does matter. Lack of transparency corrodes integrity.
The public had 45 days up to Jan. 3, 2012, to comment on the agencies’ draft Yakima Plan. One day later, Jan. 4, plan proponents released a proposal for Congress to designate 41,000 acres of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest as two motorized National Recreation Areas. The Forest Service staff of the Cle Elum Ranger District was not even consulted.
The Yakima Plan process set many bad precedents for federal policies on forests, water, endangered species, off-road vehicle recreation, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
The many substantive and process flaws resulted in more than 30 conservation organizations’ refusal to support the Yakima Plan, including the Sierra Club, Audubon, The Mountaineers and many more. Many testified in the state Legislature’s hearings this year.
We need a new ethic for the lands and waters off the Yakima River, and far beyond. We cannot dam our way out of climate change and water shortages.
Brock Evans is president of Endangered Species Coalition in Washington, D.C., and former Northwest regional director of the Sierra Club. Estella Leopold, daughter of author and ecologist Aldo Leopold, is a Seattle paleobotanist.