Across Our State

Ag land comes with water


Some things are just meant to work together-bread and butter, knife and fork, paper and pencil, washer and dryer. Without the other half, there are limitations in action and effectiveness.

That applies even more in the Yakima Valley where we can't have viable farms and ranches without water.

Nothing grows without water. Water must be applied at the right time, in the right places, in the right amounts to have healthy food crops and animals. That's why our land purchase decisions depend on the water right that goes with it.

First, let's correct the misinformation about water rights. The oldest water rights in our Valley are held by individuals who settled here mostly along the tributaries of the Yakima River. They are based on the date of settlement (riparian rights) and date of use (appropriation rights). Courts and the Yakima River Adjudication process has based all of the water rights on these two factors.

Any portion of an original appropriation that had not been put to beneficial use in the previous five years was taken away for other beneficial uses. This is the "use it or lose it" philosophy.

In drought years this relinquishment is not a problem. What becomes a problem is when we farmers try to help others by transferring some of our water to supplement them. This gives the Dept. of Ecology the opportunity to examine why we don't need it.

Senate Bill 6084, sponsored by Senator Honeyford, would prohibit DOE from that potential relinquishment action which would encourage us to help each other without fear of losing part of our water right.

Second, let's note that the Yakima Irrigation Project was for the stated purpose of providing water for irrigation. In recent years that purpose has been expanded to include fish flows, habitat, recreation, and in some cases, domestic water supplies.

Irrigators have been squeezed into a tight mold. There has been no more infrastructure, no more storage, no further water to accommodate the expanded need. Farmers like Tom Carpenter have been advocating more storage for years. Rep. Jim Clements has been working on Pine Hollow for a decade. Everyone in the Senate knows that Sen. Honeyford wants more money and action on Black Rock. Now we even have our governor on the increased storage team.

It would be helpful if every reader would contact their federal legislator to make this finally happen.

Third, let's understand this issue. The prior appropriation doctrine provides a structure that serves us well as long as it is managed well. There is strong incentive under it for users who need water at various times to seek it from other users. There is leeway for transfers and farmers sharing together. The problem isn't in the doctrine. It is in the management of it.

The lead agency for water in our state is the Department of Ecology. They have moved away from a strict prior appropriation doctrine to a system that worries more about fish than water right holders. Water transfers are bottled up by a backlog and uncertainty, in large part due to relinquishment concerns. Few new water rights are being issued on the belief that our state, with one of the largest rivers in the United States running through it, is out of water.

It sounds righteous to say let's just all share our water for the public good. The value of your home is what you have purchased plus what you have put into it. The value of our farm is not only the work we put into it every day and every year, but also the water right that comes with it. Land without water has very little value. It won't grow food or animals, so it won't enhance the economy. It is not worth buying except for more housing developments.

Ag water isn't free. We pay for it by the acre with our property taxes or directly to our irrigation districts. Still we are willing to help each other so that our economy can flourish. We are also more than willing to work for additional storage so that years of drought don't take us all down the path of financial ruin. Let's keep our bread and butter together!

Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her Across our State column as a way to keep local readers informed of what is currently happening in Olympia.


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