Some Yakima Basin farmers fear another severe drought next year and are proposing a plan to pump additional gallons from Kachess Lake as early as this summer, which is stirring a backlash.
For the thirsty farmers of the Yakima basin, Kachess Lake, near Snoqualmie Pass, is a tempting sight.
It already provides some of the water that flows through their irrigation canals. Now, some are pushing for the installation of huge pumps that could provide an additional 16 billion gallons of water by next year’s growing season.
Spooked by the bite of this year’s drought and the risks of a more severe situation next year, they are willing to pay the $58 million cost themselves, hoping for a whirlwind of engineering, financing and construction that could get the pumps in place by July 1.
“We’ve got a short time to get this done,” said Scott Revell, manager of the Roza Irrigation District of 1,700 farmers that would pay for construction. “The sooner, the better.”
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This pumping proposal is a downscaled version of a larger project that could eventually suck as much as 64.8 billion additional gallons from Kachess to help resolve chronic water shortages in the Yakima Basin.
That project has stirred a backlash from lakeside homeowners and some environmental groups who are opposed to drawing down Kachess an additional 20 to 80 feet below its current summer low point.
“Do they want to float a loan to pay off every homeowner who loses 50 percent of their property values?” said Jay Schwartz, a Kachess Lake homeowner who has helped galvanize opposition.
The bigger, long-term plan
Tapping deeper into this lake is a key part of a broader 30-year plan, estimated to cost more than $4 billion, to help the Yakima Basin withstand drought and improve upstream passage for fish to six lakes.
The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, first released in 2012, resulted from years of negotiations. It’s supported by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state government. Conservation groups that back the plan include Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and The Wilderness Society.
Much of the plan’s cost is expected to be paid by the state and federal government. The state has already invested $160 million in the plan’s launch, including the 2013 conservation purchase of more than 50,000 acres of forest in the Teanaway River headwaters north of Cle Elum.
Proponents hail the Yakima Basin plan as a landmark document that can unite environmentalists, tribes and farmers around a common vision, serving as a blueprint for resolving other Western water disputes in an era when climate change will aggravate shortages.
“We are the first place in the country to get this far,” said Urban Eberhart, general manager of the Kittitas Reclamation District.
There is broad support, for example, for innovative efforts to redirect winter runoff that would otherwise flow out to sea. As rivers surge during storms, irrigation canals would funnel the water onto porous lands where it recharges aquifers tapped by farmers during the summer.
Proponents say the plan has already paid off in a new spirit of cooperation evident this past summer. Working with state biologists, the Kittitas Reclamation District based in Ellensburg harnessed its irrigation canals to deliver water to nine drought-stricken streams where salmon and trout were stranded.
“These folks would have run from that in the old days. They wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with tying their infrastructure to fish,” said Tom Tebb, director of the state’s Office of Columbia River.
But projects to develop new water supplies — vital pieces of the plan for farmers — remain controversial.
The first big project would be the drawdown of Kachess Lake.
In the decades ahead, the plan also calls for building a new dam at Bumping Lake, northwest of Naches, a move that would flood some 1,000 acres of old- growth forest, and the building of a new dam in Kittitas County to create a reservoir.
Critics say the basin plan puts too much focus on finding more water for farmers. They say the plan represents a missed opportunity to make deeper reforms in the long-standing allocation of public water supplies that grants priority to those who first received water rights.
In addition to homeowners, the plan is opposed by the Sierra Club, whose representatives were not able to gain a seat at the table during the initial negotiations, as well as more than a dozen other environmental groups.
“Are we going to be forever looking for the next easy source of water, no matter how expensive or destructive to the environment?” said John Osborn, a Sierra Club representative in Spokane.
Cantwell and her staff have met with groups concerned about the plan. She also has made some changes in the legislation that cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee in November and would authorize federal spending for the plan.
Critics still have problems with the bill, including a water-conservation goal that they say is far too low.
The projected economic payoffs for the plan also have come under scrutiny. A study prepared for the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology estimate the plan would generate at least $1.8 billion more in economic benefits than the costs.
But a Washington State University analysis, requested by the Legislature, concluded the overall costs would be more than $2 billon higher than the benefits. The author, WSU economist Jonathan Yoder, has stood by those findings even as they have come under attack from plan proponents.
Farmers’ faster plan
This year’s drought was triggered by a scant snowpack in the mountains, and farmers faced cutbacks in irrigation water. Though there were no widespread crop failures, there were pockets of hardship.
Chances for a repeat of this year’s drought in 2016 appear unlikely.
But if the winter snowpack ends up as poor as 2015’s, Roza District farmers next summer would receive only 27 percent of their normal water supplies. That would be “catastrophic” for growers, said Revell, the district manager.
To ensure against that risk, the farmers who sit on Roza’s board want to be able to pump additional water out of Kachess Lake by next summer.
That kind of timetable is impossible under the Yakima plan. Its Kachess project, projected to cost more than $360 million, is still years away from completion. And, lakeside homeowners question whether the lake — if drawn down to the maximum proposed depth of 80 feet — would ever get enough winter runoff to refill.
“When you look at the historical records of runoff, there’s just not enough water in the drainages to make that happen,” said Schwartz, a Seattle financial analyst whose family has owned a house at Kachess for the past seven years.
To speed things up, an engineering firm contracted by Roza came up with the smaller, $58 million pump project for the district’s farmers.
This design calls for a fleet of diesel generators that would produce power to operate pumps mounted on a barge. These pumps would lower the lake an additional 20 feet, and the system could later be expanded to take more water.
In addition to homeowner opposition, that plan has drawn protests from some Roza District farmers. They are balking at potential 60 percent increases in water assessments to pay for the pumping.
“We have been around for 40 years and dealt with every drought since then and survived,” wrote Tanner Wickle, vice president of W.S. Farms in Zillah. “We feel this is a panic plan.”
The Roza District board earlier this fall gave the project initial approval, with a vote to assess irrigators scheduled for later this month.
State and federal officials have agreed to consider the pumping plan as an emergency drought project, putting it on a separate fast track for environmental review. But there is no guarantee of making it happen by next summer.
“I’ve been asked to be an optimist on this job, so, yes, I’m going to do everything I can to try to make it happen,” said Tebb, from the state Office of the Columbia River. “I can think there are a lot of reasons why it couldn’t happen.”