With the snow from this unusual winter still piled along our Cascade Mountain highways, it is hard to focus on what climate change is doing to the supply of water we can actually count on year after year, particularly in areas dependent on slow-melting snows that feed the Yakima River and its tributaries.
I choose not to enter into the debate over global warming, but will just say that we are living with the consequences of climate change that are real, and could cost us our future, if we don't get with it now.
So, what do we do about it? We reach into the Columbia River during winter months when there is a growing surplus of water that no one can use. It is pumped up hill into a storage reservoir, and used in the summer to water two major irrigation districts that reach into Benton and Yakima counties. This water doesn't get into the Yakima River because of modern water use and conservation methods.
Yes, there is a dam to impound the water, but if you are going to build a dam these days, build it where there has never been water...and that is the Black Rock Valley.
Now, here is the magic. The Yakima River system then shifts its primary use from irrigation to being managed for salmon production. The combination of dramatic increases in water for the "fish factory" and restored habitat will lead to our river system proving the predictions of fishery experts that the Yakima River has the best salmon production potential of any stream in the lower 48 states.
The potential cost is a major concern for a lot of folks, accented when the recent Bureau of Reclamation Feasibility Study decided that the Black Rock Reservoir Project was worth only 16 cents for every dollar of cost. Please understand what they reported, because they look only to the past, and only at what the value would be to the "national" economy. They have told us to go out and find regional, state and local economic values but fail to emphasize any of that in their study.
So, the $1 billion we in the northwest are collecting through our power bills each year to restore salmon (without much to show for it) doesn't count for anything under their principles and guidelines. Nor does the tremendous recreational value of 10 square miles of slack water in a reservoir 30 minutes east of Yakima, or the potential of power generation from a "storage battery" to help blend wind and solar power into our energy mix.
If you add up all the values from this inter-basin transfer of water, held in a convenient storage reservoir, and the potential for returning to historic levels of salmon production in the Yakima River system, water supplies for future municipal and industrial growth, a minimum of 70 percent of the water needed to satisfy existing, court-established irrigation rights, construction jobs for a $4 billion project half an hour away, and (pause for breath) you have a very positive cost-benefit ratio.
The Bureau of Reclamation $18 million study did tell us that there are no fatal flaws in the Black Rock proposal, that it can be built, and that all the alternatives they have studied for decades don't do the job now, let alone meet the uncertainties of the future.
I can hear you saying that the federal study also told us that dams leak. All dams leak, but most are built on rivers so nobody notices. The geology under the Black Rock site indicates that there will be two potential pathways for water, over time, to escape in relatively small quantities. The Bureau has lots of experience in mitigating this loss.
Just as hydraulic pressure has already been reduced by pumping down the water table at Hanford, any available seepage in our arid desert lands is very much in demand. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of land, much of it owned by the State that are most interested in pumping down the water table that might impact Hanford. Likewise, local irrigation districts need water for vital growing areas like Red Mountain above Benton City. My bet is that water escaping from Black Rock will be turned into an asset, even leading to a reduction in the existing water pressure from the west that impacts Hanford. Several federal agencies will help with answers in a study available yet this spring.
Sid Morrison, a former 4th District Congressman, is the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance Board Co-chair, the Executive Board Chair for Energy-Northwest, the Board Chair for the Tri-Cities Local Business Association and is a Board member for Federal Engineers and Constructors and Hanford Reach Fundraisers.