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Yakima basin plan backed by Governor, Newhouse

YAKIMA - Gov. Chris Gregoire is urging Congressional and state support for a plan that bolsters water supplies in the Yakima basin and implements one of the most significant ecological restoration projects undertaken in the West.

"Water is the lifeblood of our state," Gregoire said. "Our communities, our $1 billion agricultural industry and our fish all depend on a reliable source of water to survive and to thrive."

Gregoire added that she was pleased with the progress made by the Department of Ecology and the Bureau of Reclamation to reach agreement on the future of water in the Yakima River Basin.

"I urge that we move forward and implement this new program - the sooner we're able to provide a constant source of water, the sooner our entire region will benefit," she said.

Last fall, Gregoire joined Rep. Doc Hastings and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in Yakima to garner support for the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan endorsed by a diverse group of water interests.

The plan calls for improving water supplies for the Yakima Basin Irrigation Project and providing fish passage at 100-year-old reservoirs in addition to other fish and habitat enhancements.

Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation and Washington Department of Ecology announced the release of a final programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates the impacts associated with an integrated plan designed to meet the basin's water and aquatic resource needs.

The Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan provides a balanced approach to addressing water shortages through additional surface water and underground water storage, enhanced water conservation, market-based water reallocation, and structural and operational improvements.

The plan also improves the basin's environmental health by protecting and enhancing habitat, providing fish passage at reservoirs, and making targeted land acquisitions on a willing-seller basis.

The Yakima River Basin stretches from the crest of Snoqualmie Pass to Benton City, where the river drains into the Columbia River. It supports a rich farming base with crops ranging from Timothy hay and mint, to perennial apple and cherry and peach orchards, and annual crops of asparagus, potatoes and row vegetables relying on irrigation.

Increasingly frequent water shortages, coupled with predictions of reduced snowpack due to the changing climate, have brought once conflicting water interests to a common table in support of the plan.

The goal, then, is to seek authorization and funding from both the U.S. Congress and the Washington State Legislature to begin implementing projects outlined in the integrated plan. The work group adopted the plan in 2011 that led to the preparation of the EIS released today. Individual projects will each receive specific environmental review. The document serves as an umbrella framework for the entire plan.

The plan will be further refined based on the comments received during the programmatic environmental review and forwarded to the U.S. Department of Interior for authorization and policy consideration by Congress and the state Legislature in 2013.

Dan Newhouse, a Sunnyside-area farmer, is the director of the state's agriculture department and he backs the Yakima basin plan.

"This is about the time of year producers begin to look nervously to the mountains to gauge the snowpack," Newhouse said. "To a large extent, we are dependent on that natural water storage in the Cascades and other ranges. As a result of that dependence, we've lived through droughts that have had a major impact on farm incomes. In the Yakima Basin, we currently have about 1 million acre-feet of water storage, but each year we use twice that amount for agricultural irrigation."

Newhouse added, "The landmark agreement reached last spring to increase water storage is a win for our communities, for the natural environment and for agriculture. We need to pull together to secure the resources needed to make the vision of additional storage a reality. If we do nothing, we're only inviting a drought event that will have serious consequences for our state's economy."

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