Concerns have taken on a new urgency as the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan moves forward through Congress. The long-term plan affects the future of water supplies for farmers and wildlife.
Every three months, officials with irrigation districts, fish and wildlife agencies and the Yakama Nation meet to discuss the latest in their sweeping, long-term plan to ensure a future with enough water for farmers and wildlife in the Yakima Basin.
Also attending every meeting are a small group of opponents patiently waiting to voice frustration with what they call a biased process lacking transparency.
“We continue to object to the Yakima Workgroup portraying the Yakima Plan as the product of diverse interest groups when the work group remains unresponsive to comments and concerns from those not at the table,” said Elaine Packard, a representative from the state chapter of the Sierra Club.
And those concerns have taken on a new urgency as the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan moves forward. Last month, a Senate committee in Washington, D.C., approved legislation to authorize the first 10-year phase of the 30-year plan, which calls for more than $4 billion for additional water storage, fish passage, water conservation and habitat protection.
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A House bill is also in development, staff for Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., confirmed.
Praised for ending decades of litigation and bitterness between competing interests, the plan is called vital to the economic and environmental future of the region.
But it is not without opponents. Lake Kachess homeowners worry about wells drying up, lower property values and reduced fire protection when the reservoir is drawn down. To the south, cabin owners and campers don’t want to see Bumping Lake expanded by a new dam that would flood cabins, campgrounds and old-growth forest. There are some environmental groups that oppose any new reservoirs. And finally, there are fiscal watchdogs who say the plan’s benefits don’t justify the price.
Some of these opponents met with the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., last fall, but changes to the legislation aimed at their concerns haven’t eased many minds.
“Sen. Cantwell’s staff was handed a mess. The plan is poisoned fruit from a contaminated process, so it could not be made acceptable,” said Bill Campbell, a retired scientist who lives alongside Lake Kachess.
Distrust of the plan and the work group are so high, critics say the only true fix is to scrap the whole thing — or at least the water-storage aspects.
That would be the wrong move for the region, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita said at the work group meeting on Dec. 16.
“In my life as an elected official, we simply understand that some people will be in favor of a particular issue and some will be opposed; there’s never unanimous support,” Leita said. “But this is a marathon. This is a process we’re engaged in, and we sincerely listen to everyone’s concerns as we seek the most common benefits for the Yakima Basin.”
“Every meeting, Mike Leita says, we need to stick together and we can’t alter the plan,” said Chris Maykut, a Bumping Lake cabin owner and president of a group opposing the new dam plans.
“It’s a house of sticks. Everyone (in the work group) got something they wanted and if one group pulls out, it falls apart, so they have to stick to the plan. So no, I don’t have any trust in the work group.”
That deep distrust appears rooted in the plan’s origin story.
In 2009, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology convened a group of “stakeholders” — irrigators with junior water rights, the Yakama Nation, county officials and fish and wildlife agencies — to review past studies and look for big picture solutions to the basin’s water problems. The agencies developed the workgroup’s ideas into the Integrated Plan, which was described in detail in a 2012 environmental review report.
But was that process, as Maykut, Campbell and others claim, a contrived group of agriculture interests seeking a way to build more water storage and work around past attempts that failed cost-benefit tests?
Or, as members of the work group tell it, did a group of farmers and fish and wildlife advocates frustrated from decades of lawsuits come together to find common solutions that stood a better chance of success together than separately?
As evidence of the former, Maykut points to the plans to expand the Bumping Lake reservoir, which had been previously studied and scrapped because it didn’t pass cost/benefit tests.
Seeing it revived as part of the Integrated Plan, which balances out the cost of expensive new dams with the large economic benefits from planned fish passage systems, was frustrating.
“They have a fundamental focus on water storage and designed the plan as a way to get it,” Maykut said. “I feel like that premise is fundamentally flawed.”
According to the history of the plan described in the 2012 report, the work group and developing plan initially focused on water needs for both irrigation and fisheries, and the habitat protection and restoration components were added to the plan in 2010, along with new group members from conservation groups, such as Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.
Opponents also question whether the work group is compliant with federal rules for advisory committees that are created to give direction to federal agencies, which are designed to limit the influence of special interests.
But Reclamation’s lead on the project, Wendy Christensen, said the work group was never seen as a federal advisory committee and those regulations don’t apply. It’s a stakeholder group for sharing information, she said, and the agency has made its own decisions on the plan in partnership with the Ecology Department.
Opponents repeatedly point out that supporters ignored an independent economic review by a team of Washington State University scientists who found that the water supply projects failed cost/benefit tests and the benefits from fish passage are not as large as initially estimated.
“When new information comes in, they won’t change,” Maykut said. “The WSU report says these storage projects are a financial disaster, and they just doubled down.”
Supporters maintain that looking at the economic benefits of each component of the plan in isolation misses the point — it was designed as an integrated plan because it’s worth more together than the sum of its parts.
The major water supply project in the first phase of the plan is a new pump system at the Kachess Reservoir that would further draw down the reservoir during drought years to boost supply.
Plan supporters say the willingness of irrigators to pay for the pump system because they see value in the water security renders the argument that the project is not cost-effective moot.
And Cantwell’s legislation requires detailed feasibility and potential impact studies to be done before the Bureau of Reclamation can move forward with the project.
The planned pump system would pull water out of the deep natural lake that existed before the dam and larger reservoir were built in 1912.
Lake Kachess residents worry that deeper drawdown could dry up their wells, lower their property values and limit firefighters’ access to lake water.
Campbell said the draft environmental review doesn’t do enough to account for these adverse effects and the costs of addressing them.
“The lake is a water source for our fire district, and the report just says they’ll monitor and mitigate for increased fire risk. Monitor and mitigate is not good enough,” he said.
But what Campbell sees as a lack of specificity in the environmental review, Christensen says is a normal part of the federal review process because studies and data collection are ongoing.
“It’s a slow, deliberate process, and it’s appropriate in an EIS to say that we will monitor impacts as they occur and address them,” she said.
Campbell also said it’s hard to trust the process because he doesn’t feel like Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell, the county’s representative on the work group, is advocating for his community.
Jewell said he knows the Kachess residents are frustrated, but the county has to balance their concerns with the overall benefits the integrated plan provides the county.
“We’re very concerned about fire protection and well mitigation, but the analysis is still being done,” Jewell said.
“We saw the water problems here on the ground in the summer of 2015, and it’s our motivation to find solutions that address the greater good. Sometimes there are hard choices to be made, but we’re going to find reasonable ways to make sure any impacts are mitigated as appropriate.”