YAKIMA — Gov. Jay Inslee introduced a bill to the Legislature on Thursday requiring state agencies to begin implementing a long-term plan for improving water supplies in Central Washington’s agricultural Yakima River Basin.
The arid region is a farming powerhouse thanks to miles of irrigation canals built to feed fruit orchards, wine grapes and dozens of other crops.
But periodic droughts reduce stream flows for those farmers, as well as for local communities and threaten fish. State and federal officials have been working for years to develop a plan for easing those pains.
Last year, state and federal officials rolled out a $4 billion long-term plan that includes proposals for a new reservoir, expansion of at least two others, enhanced water conservation and improved fish passage and habitat, among other things.
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Inslee on Thursday called the plan a concrete and specific proposal for bolstering agriculture and the economy in central Washington. He also called it a “sweet spot” in his broader jobs’ agenda, because he believes the measure would have the support of both Democrats and Republicans.
“This is water, jobs and fish,” Inslee said.
Inslee says he supports spending $23.6 million over the next two years on specific projects laid out in the plan, though state lawmakers already face a budget that is $1 billion out of balance and a state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature isn’t adequately funding education.
The proposal is Inslee’s first as governor. He was sworn in Jan. 16.
Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, called the bill a good first step and said he’s anxious to see what comes out of the process.
He also noted that Inslee previously represented the Yakima Valley in the Legislature and in Congress.
“His ties to the Yakima Valley show that he’s serious about making sure that our water needs are being met, and I’m encouraged by that,” he said.
The Yakima River basin stretches from Snoqualmie Pass to Richland, south of the Hanford nuclear reservation. The heavily irrigated region is home to thousands of acres of tree fruit, wine grapes, hops and other crops, but it has been susceptible to drought.
In those lean years, fish suffer in low rivers and farmers and towns with newer water rights see their water supply rationed.
In the past 30 years, millions of dollars have been spent on dozens of studies of the basin, with no consensus on how to improve water supplies for fish, irrigators and growing communities.
Associated Press reporter Jonathan Kaminsky contributed to this story.