In the Yakima Basin, for at least a century, there has not been enough water to fully satisfy irrigation, municipal and fisheries needs at the same time. Just as in most of the West, there will never be enough water for everyone’s desires. Even in good water years, fish do not have enough water. In drought years, agriculture also suffers.

We tried many paths out of this problem. In 1905, the Bureau of Reclamation established storage reservoirs to support a robust agricultural economy; these came at the expense of fisheries, and U.S. Treaty commitments made to the Yakama Nation. We fought in court and waged our politics. These efforts resulted in temporary inequitable victories that merely set up the next fight.

Climate change makes the need for a new approach obvious. Extreme heat events are more likely. Droughts will worsen, and the snowpack we rely upon will diminish. Each of us, from our different perspectives, could see this. And we acted.

For the last decade, irrigation districts, the Yakama Nation, nonprofit groups, and federal, state and local governments worked together to resolve water challenges in the Yakima River Basin. We avoid solutions perfect for single interests, opting for those that satisfy many. We are finding solutions that make cities, farms, fish, forests and communities better off.

The result is the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a 30-year road map for reliable water supplies, increased water conservation, restored fish abundance and healthier watersheds. Climate resilience for people, fish, the economy and the future of the Yakima Basin is central to the plan.

We are seeing real improvements. Ongoing successes include acquisition of the 55,000-acre Teanaway Community Forest, construction of innovative fish passage and an increase in storage capacity at Cle Elum Reservoir, conservation of water through efficiency and removal of the city of Yakima’s Nelson Dam. Increased water storage in both reservoirs and aquifers is being developed.


It’s a good start, but there is more to do.

The Yakima Basin is positioned to compete for funding though the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with more than a billion dollars of projects ready to go. State funds through the capital budget are essential, both to meet federal match requirements and when no federal funding source is available.

Our successes have broad impacts. Yakima agriculture contributes more than $4.5 billion to the state’s economy. Yakima’s hops are vital to craft breweries around the world and the wide diversity of its produce offers food security.

At the same time, healthy harvestable fisheries are needed to fulfill commitments to the Yakama Nation and support a recreational economy.

A century of litigation, political wrangling and strife did not lead to durable solutions. But we have turned a corner — the work, for all of us, is different. The path is not easy, but we know that respecting each other’s interests has helped us find pragmatic, workable solutions. Collaboration among tribal, city, state, federal and private organizations — it works. It is key to integrated planning for a heathy, sustainable economy and environment, and has given us the power to develop big initiatives.

The Yakima model is getting attention. The Colorado River is facing water supply cuts that match the annual flow of the Yakima — they can fight, or they can work together to find realistic solutions. In Washington, Ecology is applying our model to the Chehalis River Basin to make progress on flooding and fishery issues, and interests in the Nooksack River are looking at it as well.

For durable, sustainable and resilient solutions, mutual respect based on recognizing the values of (former) adversaries is the place to start. It’s working in the Yakima.