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Yakima River Basin water plan released  

The alliance is urging the use of wind integrated into the Northwest power grid to pump water into the basin. The benefit the group sees is that wind farm developers could invest private capital to make the plan a reality.

Credit:  by David Lester, Yakima Herald-Republic, www.yakima-herald.com 2 March 2012 ~~

YAKIMA, Wash. – The preliminary rounds are over.

Now the real battle for support and money begins for a plan Gov. Chris Gregoire describes as one of the most significant ecological restoration projects in the West.

Federal and state officials rolled out a final environmental report Friday on a plan to meet Yakima River Basin’s future needs for more water storage, fish passage and land preservation.

A key element is the expansion of Bumping Lake, northwest of Yakima, that has been reviewed and rejected for decades.

The overall plan, more than two years in the making, could cost anywhere from $3.2 billion to $5.6 billion.

The first concrete steps to find the majority of that money from a Congress already strapped for money will come during the rest of this year.

Representatives of a broad-based group that developed the plan will head back to Washington, D.C., as early as April to begin laying the groundwork.

Gregoire said the investment is worth it.

“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.”

But any significant federal funding is considered unlikely until at least 2015.

The plan, proposed in phases over the next several decades, is designed to give farmers a more reliable water supply and open miles of habitat for fish above basin storage dams. Two species, bull trout and steelhead, are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In addition to endangered species concerns, the three-county basin has suffered through five economically damaging droughts in the last 20 years.

The lengthy environmental document issued Friday only looks at the effects of the overall program, concluding the seven-step plan is preferable to doing nothing. The document is now headed to the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Office of Management and Budget. From there, it will move to Congress.

Individual parts of the plans would have to undergo environmental reviews on their own before they are authorized for funding.

Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, who serves on the committee making the trip to D.C., said getting projects on the ground is key to the future of Central Washington.

“Make no mistake about it, this Yakima River Basin plays a significant role in our state’s economy and for endangered species recovery,” Leita said. “If this plan ultimately fails, the consequence of failure will be an economy and environment in considerable jeopardy.”

While this plan is ambitious, it also has gotten farther than previous plans, a myriad of which have been conducted here for decades without action.

The federal Yakima Irrigation Project, stretching from near Snoqualmie Pass to Richland, caused the desert to bloom with hundreds of millions of dollars in crops. But the basin has been hamstrung by limited storage capacity and annual reliance on a healthy snowpack to provide irrigation water at a time when climate change suggests less snow in the future.

What is different about this plan is the support from the Yakama Indian Nation, a key basin player, and environmental groups. The plan also has drawn the interest of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who visited the basin last fall. During his visit, he encouraged basin interests to submit a list of ideas that could be implemented in the near term.

A consortium of nine environmental groups support the plan’s inclusion of new dams, including a larger Bumping and the Wymer reservoir in the Yakima River Canyon, because the plan also contains protections for up to 70,000 acres of land in forest and shrub steppe habitat.

Michael Garrity of Seattle, representing the conservation group American Rivers, served on the group that devised the plan. Also represented were the Yakamas, farmers, county and state governments and fishery agencies.

Garrity said the inclusion of land protection allows the Yakima basin to set a new standard for what a Western water project should look like.

“This plan recognizes the need to restore native fish and landscapes that help protect a healthy river,” Garrity said.

He added one significant benefit is the chance to make the Yakima River the largest producer of sockeye salmon in the lower 48 states, with an estimated 300,000 returning adults possible. Sockeye, a fish prized by native people, went extinct when the natural lakes in the Cascades were dammed in the early 1900s to store water for irrigation. The Yakamas have planted sockeye in Lake Cle Elum as part of a plan to test the ability to get fish out of the lake.

Among conservation groups backing the plan are the Washington Environmental Council, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Wilderness Society.

Other groups like the Sierra Club oppose the storage element, preferring emphasis on water conservation and water banking to meet the basin’s needs. They plan to fight it.

Other groups also have questions about the plan’s ability to achieve its goal of assuring farmers a 70 percent supply of irrigation water.

Sid Morrison of Zillah, a former state legislator and congressman, heads a group called the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance that favors an interbasin transfer of water from the Columbia River.

The alliance is urging the use of wind integrated into the Northwest power grid to pump water into the basin. The benefit the group sees is that wind farm developers could invest private capital to make the plan a reality.

Studying an interbasin transfer is proposed, but only if other measures don’t satisfy the basin’s needs over the next 30 years.

“We like the plan, but we are frustrated over there not being enough water and now there is no money to go with it,” he said. “We increasingly have concerns that don’t seem to be answered.”

Source:  by David Lester, Yakima Herald-Republic, www.yakima-herald.com 2 March 2012

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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