With a federal groundwater survey in hand, the state's Department of Ecology will begin processing a backlog of water right applications.
That's according to an announcement the agency issued this week in which it noted some 116 applicants for new ground and surface water permits in the Wide Hollow and Moxee sub-basins will be among the first to be considered now that the U.S. Geological Survey scientific study and model is complete.
Released last fall, the study indicates pumping from underground aquifers draws water from the river and contributes to surface water shortages in the basin.
The impacts are particularly felt in July and August when senior water right holders such as irrigators and fisheries need it most.
The information in the study reinforces that ground and surface waters in the basin must be managed as one resource.
As a result, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita cautions applicants not to get their hopes up too much.
"I want to caution everybody not to be overly optimistic about that," he says. "DOE takes the position that we don't have enough groundwater because it's linked to surface water."
Leita added that senior and especially junior water right holders such as the Roza Irrigation District are concerned about new wells drawing water, especially now that a link between groundwater and surface water draws has been established.
Yakima County is working closely with the Depatment of Ecology, Leita continued. Because of that partnership he doesn't anticipate the agency imposing a moratorium on new wells as was placed in Upper Kittitas County.
As for why the permit review process is beginning in the Moxee and Wide Hollow areas, Leita says they have known issues with water well levels decreasing at an alarming rate.
Applicants in Moxee and Wide Hollow and elsewhere are asked to consider a number of options to help the agency in making permit decisions about their proposed water use in the context of study results.
Ecology anticipates that new water uses in the Wide Hollow and Moxee sub-basins will require mitigation to offset the expected impacts of a new withdrawal on the river and senior users.
Mitigation may be achieved by obtaining coverage under a senior water right.
"How water resources will be managed in the Yakima River Bain has been the focus of study and evaluation for two decades," said Maia Bellon, Water Resources Program Manager for Ecology. "The USGS study tells us that water drawn from deep aquifers reduces surface water at a greater rate than previously thought. It is imperative that we protect the resource and the rights of senior water users. By doing so, we protect the tremendous economic and environmental values of the basin."
Water is in short supply in the Yakima Basin, with rationing of irrigation water having occurred several times over the past 20 years, most recently in 2005.
"The good news is that we're on the cusp of a number of water enhancement opportunities that should provide a profoundly different water future in the basin," Bellon said. "Water leaders have embraced the goals of the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Management Plan to increase water storage and restore fish passage at the basin's reservoirs."
Yakima County is one of the players in that plan, and Leita says the cooperative effort will hopefully stem potential conflict between water users.
"This is the beginning of a process to address groundwater issues in Yakima County," he said. "The USGS study in and of itself is a broad study and so Yakima County has engaged to further understand that study. We've employed outside independent legal review of our groundwater policies and practices as it relates to how we permit developments."
Leita added the hope is to "...sit down with interested parties and try to work out solutions and avoid confrontation."