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Committee approves Yakima Basin water plan

OLYMPIA - Implementing a water resources management plan for the Yakima River Basin gained approval from the legislature's House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee last week. But paying for it is a major obstacle.

Legislation authorizing the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) to launch implementation, contained in House Bill (HB) 1414, is the first executive request bill to emerge from Gov. Jay Inslee's administration.

A companion bill in the Senate was proposed last week by Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside.

Most supporters agree that the legislation is a necessary step toward addressing inadequate water storage in the basin.

However, a major concern for legislators and supporters is funding the project.

Carrying out the plan's mandate is anticipated to cost between $3.8 billion and $5 billion during its 30-year timeline.

Department of Ecology Director of the Office of the Columbia River Derek Sandison told lawmakers the largest share of funding would come from state and federal resources. Local financing from the affected counties would cover the remaining costs. He did not detail what those local costs might be.

The plan, in brief, calls for seven different measures:

• reservoir fish passage,

• water conservation,

• surface-water storage,

• recharged aquifer storage,

• habitat preservation,

• operational changes and

• market reallocation.

The project has been a three-decade-long work-in-progress that would combine increased measures of water conservancy and create additional water supply for commercial, municipal and domestic uses.

If executed, the plan is expected to increase the pro-ratable supply of water to 70 percent during years of drought and to more efficiently manage water supply by implementing conservation measures. It would also enhance fish passage throughout the basin.

Pro-ratable water rights are commonly reserved for irrigation, fire and public utility districts.

During drought years, those with pro-ratable water rights often receive about 37 percent of their water allotments, according to DOE.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, and Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen. Inslee believes it is not only a project important to the three counties containing the basin, but crucial for the state's economy and needed job creation.

"The Yakima River Basin is part of our $40 billion food and agriculture industry," the governor said. "These industries directly support more than 5,500 jobs. The projects associated with this work will create hundreds of jobs."

Some conservation group members and legislators find conflict with some of the specifics of the legislation.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Everett, is concerned about the potential $5 billion price-tag for this project, believes there are other projects in the state that also need sufficient funding.

"I have some problems in that amount of money in one watershed," he said. "We need to think about the rest of the state."

Dunshee is also concerned about whether federal funding would be secured for the project.

The governor and some of his staff have said they realize the cost is significant, but it would be a plus for Washington if the project is completed.

"Passage of this bill and a down-payment from our capital budget will show the federal government that we're serious at the state level and it will strengthen our hand as we aggressively pursue federal funding in the years to come," said Ted Sturdevant, director of Legislative Affairs for Inslee.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire set aside $23.6 million in her budget proposal to begin funding the Integrated Resource Management Plan for the first two years.

Other opinions and concerns have swept through hearings the past two weeks concerning the plan.

Chris Maykut of Friends of Bumping Lake fears that the project would unnecessarily destroy ancient forestlands surrounding the lake and that the proposed project would not be an adequate reservoir improvement that would produce water in consecutive drought years.

While he said he agrees with the goals of the legislation, the project's component regarding the Bumping Lake area would cause needless destruction to natural habitats and vacation areas for visitors.

Kennewick Irrigation District Planning Manager Scott Revell, also a stakeholder in the project, said: "Expanding the Bumping Lake reservoir will expand the features that make it a great place while improving water supplies for families, farms and fish."

There are about 30 members in the workgroup established to create the Integrated Resource Management Plan. Members were selected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and DOE. Some of those stakeholders include the Yakama Nation, Benton, Kittitas and Yakima counties, American Rivers, Yakima River Basin Storage Alliance and six irrigation districts.

One other concern voiced by Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, is the additional purchase of land needed to carry out some components of the Integrated Resource Management Plan and the potential that the counties would lose property-tax revenue.

"What I've told stakeholders and the department has always been that we need to take a balanced, holistic approach to additional water storage," said Taylor. "I'm concerned with the amount of land coming off the tax roll and the timing of it."

The plan proposes about 70,000 acres of newly acquired land to come from the Teanaway Basin, Yakima Canyon and Little Naches headwaters. About 75 percent of land in Yakima and Kittitas counties is already publicly owned.

HB 1414 passed out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, unanimously approved by committee members, along with an amendment sponsored by Chandler, which clarifies that the bill does not intend to interfere with or alter existing water rights in the state.

The House Rules Committee now considers the bill for floor action, or for referral to another committee for consideration.

- Kylee Zabel is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau

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