PROSSER - In the shadow of yellow, monster dump trucks and earth movers, dignitaries representing federal, state, local and tribal agencies witnessed an historical ribbon cutting ceremony on the windy slopes above Prosser yesterday morning.
The Bureau of Reclamation, Washington Department of Ecology, the Sunnyside Division Board of Control and the Yakama Tribal Council were on hand for a groundbreaking ceremony, heralding the start of a nine-year construction program designed to conserve water.
The groundbreaking, held at the site of a new re-regulating reservoir on Pioneer Road in Benton County, signaled the start of a $32.6 million effort to improve the Sunnyside Division irrigation canal system. The project will also allow for flexibility in the movement of water through the length of the 60-mile long Sunnyside canal.
"This is the beginning of an important series of construction improvements to the division over the next 10 years," said Bob Golob, chairman of the Sunnyside Division Board of Control. The groundbreaking marks the culmination of the past 20 years' work to improve the movement of water through the Yakima River Basin water project, he said.
Golob said Monday's groundbreaking marks the construction of the first of three re-regulating reservoirs to be added to the Sunnyside division, as well as 30 automated canal check structures along the canal.
"With these improvements we will be able to regulate water more efficiently," he added.
Golob praised the parties involved in making the construction project a reality.
"Because of the efficiency and cooperation between the federal, state and local parties involved, we are able to move ahead to protect water issues," he added.
"We owe a thanks to the Bureau of Reclamation for its excellent cooperation for helping to provide funding to keep this project on schedule," Golob added.
He said 65 percent of the costs of the project is on the shoulders of the Bureau of Reclamation, with the other 35 percent coming from the state DOE and the Sunnyside Division Board of Control.
The Sunnyside canal improvement project is the result of a settlement agreement between the United States, the state DOE and the Sunnyside Division in the Yakima River Basin water rights adjudication, said Linda Hoffman of the state DOE.
She said while the agreement calls for the Sunnyside Division to reduce its annual diversion, it also allows for the division to store more water, in order to use it when needed.
An added bonus to the settlement which cleared the way for Monday's historical celebration is that the fish in the Yakima River Basin will have fewer diversions to hurdle, she added.
Yakama Nation Tribal Council Vice Chairman Virgil Lewis said even though the Yakama Nation and the other parties involved in the settlement have never been in 100 percent agreement, he was pleased to be on hand for the implementation of the new improvement project.
"We believe this project will add stability to the region's water supply and to the fish in the Yakima River," Lewis said.
"I'd like to see us continue to put aside disagreements. I look forward to working cooperatively on this new project and into the future with all of us working as partners," he added.
Bill McDonald of the Pacific Northwest Regional office of the Bureau of Reclamation echoed Lewis' view of the future.
"This project and the Yakima River Basin water enhancement project act agreement will settle long-standing water rights issues for the adjudication process, as well as provide significant legal cost savings for the Reclamation," McDonald said.
"But most importantly this project will improve the Sunnyside canal system's efficiency, benefiting both irrigators and the environment," McDonald added.
When the project is completed it is expected to result in the savings of more than 29,000 acre- feet of water. The Sunnyside Division will reduce its annual diversion entitlement by 19,450 acre-feet, or roughly two-thirds. But it will retain 9,712 acre-feet (or one third annually) to improve the availability of water supplies for irrigation when needed, explained Jim Trull, manager of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, which oversees the Sunnyside canal.