A Water Plan For Fish, Families And Farmers

May 17, 2012

Boise gets a visit tonight from a man who’s helped negotiate an ambitious plan to restore the Yakima River Basin in central Washington.  Michael Garrity will speak at an event that starts at 5:45 at Bardenay.  Courtney Flatt reports on the plan that’s finding a way to restore the basin, while making sure fish, farmers and communities have enough water.  

Turn on your faucet, and you’re pretty much guaranteed water will pour out. But managing the water that’s running down our mountainsides and into our streams is not that simple, especially in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

Phil Rigdon helps manage natural resources for the Yakama Nation tribe.

“Yakima Basin is one of the most complex areas when you start talking about treaty rights, water rights, the whole kit and caboodle.”

The water complexities are obvious when you start thinking about exactly who makes up that “kit and caboodle.”

For years, each group clamored to get its issue heard. Combative court cases and political in-fighting led to a “my-way-or-the-highway” atmosphere for nearly 40 years. This same conflict has flared in many Western basins, like the Klamath in Oregon.

But all that changed in the Yakima Basin about three years ago. People began to realize they weren’t getting anywhere alone. And if they didn’t come up with solutions soon, everyone could suffer irreparable losses. Fish could disappear from the river. Farmers could lose their orchards. People could be stopped from building homes or businesses.

So, a group of around 30 stakeholders came together to find a solution that would appease concerns. What they’ve come up with is a massive undertaking that will cost billions of dollars: creating new reservoirs, building fish ladders at old dams, buying up surrounding land to help protect the ecosystem

Wendy Christensen has been heading up the *Bureau of Reclamation's role in the plan. She thumbs through a stack of notes nearly an inch thick. They detail the numerous aspects of the project.

“In the western United States, this would be one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects.”

All of these ideas – the ladders and reservoirs, land acquisition and conservation programs – they’re just on paper right now.

But if you take a closer look, you’ll find some pretty big surprises. For one:

This is the first time the environmental group American Rivers has agreed to the possibility of building new dams. That’s right. New dams that would be used to create more reservoirs to store water in wet years.

Michael Garrity is with American Rivers in Seattle. He says that huge compromise weighed heavily on him. And to agree to it, Garrity asked for new fish ladders and trucks to haul juvenile fish around dams. Plus he says this new reservoir:

“Could allow for an existing dam, called Roza dam, on the mainstem of the Yakima River to be removed.”

Right now the Roza dam is what allows farmer Jerry Haak to water his orchards. Before this plan, removing the Roza dam would have been unthinkable.

Haak stands in the middle of an apple orchard in Outlook, Washington, as workers pick extra blooms off branches.

A black hose runs near the roots of the gala apple trees. Pinholes let water drip evenly along the orchards’ rows. Haak bends down to inspect his drip irrigation system. Planting and maintaining these perennial crops is expensive – Haak estimates millions of dollars will go into these orchards over several decades.

And Haak says one thing that’s vital to a healthy, profitable crop: water – right now an unreliable resource in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

“You can’t make a business plan work if every five or six years you have one-third of your water supply. I mean, then you’re better off lettin’ somebody else grow the countries apples and pears and cherries because it just doesn’t work here.”

Back in Yakima, County Commissioner Mike Leita is wrapping up a meeting.

He’s just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., to speak with Washington’s members of congress and federal agencies. They’re hoping to drum up support – and funding – for the project. Officials estimate it could cost upwards of five billion dollars. But, Leita says, it would be more expensive if nothing happens.

“I can’t overemphasize that if this plan doesn’t come to fruition, we will be paying for it in the courts.”

And not only will the project take money, it will also take time, anywhere from 20 to 40 years. At 65 years old Leita says:

“I may not see, at my age, I may not see what success is here. But sincerely… the success needs to be seen by my grandchildren.”

The Washington Department of Ecology has called this blueprint a model for future watershed management in the state. Other groups, like those in Oregon’s Deschutes and Hood River Basins, are also working together to manage water. Yakima Basin leaders hope these efforts can spread to the rest of the western United States.

Editors Note: We originally reported that Wendy Christensen worked for the Bureau of Land Management. That's incorrect. Christensen works for the Bureau of Reclamation.