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Bureau of Reclamation approves $5 billion integrated water plan

by David Lester

Posted 7/19/2013

An ambitious and expensive plan to meet future Yakima River Basin water needs for people and fish has passed a milestone.

The road ahead, however, will be long and will require substantial public and private investment to make it a reality.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has adopted the potentially $5 billion proposal as the approach it intends to pursue over what could be the next 30 years if Congress provides authorization and funding.

Earlier this month, the agency issued what’s called a record of decision backing the seven major elements of an integrated plan — a mix of surface and groundwater storage, fish passage, land and habitat protections, water conservation, water marketing and operational changes.

The bureau decision is based on an environmental review that looked at the potential impact of those seven elements as a whole and not each individually. Each element would have to undergo a separate environmental review.

“We are cognizant that the record of decision is a milestone step moving forward,” said Wendy Christensen, the bureau’s technical programs manager in Yakima. “We just have a lot of work ahead of us. The real work is actually doing the site specific environmental compliance on each project.”

Efforts at obtaining federal funding will pick up speed next week when representatives of the broad-based group that devised the plan travel to Washington, D.C., to seek support from federal agencies and the state’s congressional delegation.

Meanwhile, opponents of the proposal are working to come up with an alternative they see as less environmentally damaging and cheaper.

Federal authorization for some elements included in the bureau’s plan already has been provided. State lawmakers added more money this year when they approved $132 million in the state capital budget directed at the project.  A majority of the money — $99 million — is for public purchase of a 50,000-acre tract in the Teanaway basin, east of Cle Elum, to protect the property, part of the basin watershed, from future development. Remaining funds will be spent on development of the other six elements.

Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita said the release of the bureau’s decision is one more step forward for the integrated plan.

“I don’t know how many steps it will take, but there will be a lot of them,” he said.

Bureau of Reclamation officials and the state Department of Ecology brought together basin interests in 2009 to draft a comprehensive solution to meet future water needs. The group included the Yakama Nation, irrigators, fishery interests, local and state governments and environmental groups.

The effort began after the bureau ended an earlier study that looked at the 1.7 million acre-foot Black Rock reservoir, east of Yakima, by concluding the costs far outweighed the benefits.

Among its major features are expansion of Bumping Lake, northwest of Yakima; construction of the Wymer reservoir in the Yakima River Canyon, fish passage at all five major basin storage dams; storing more water at Lake Cle Elum; accessing dead storage in Lake Kachess; water banking; groundwater storage; and preserving forest and shrub-steppe habitats. The goals include assuring basin irrigators at least a 70 percent supply of water during drought years and restoring runs of migratory fish.

Expanding the 33,000 acre-foot Bumping Lake to a total of 190,000 acre-feet has been the most controversial element.

Environmental groups that oppose the plan say expansion would destroy old-growth timber and habitat for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl.

Chris Maykut, who helped form Friends of Bumping Lake to oppose expansion, said he was not surprised the bureau decision favors moving ahead with the overall plan. He said a counterproposal is being developed that will emphasize water conservation.

“Water conservation should be the first thing to talk about to fix water issues. It should be mandatory and not voluntary,” said Maykut, whose family has owned a cabin at Bumping Lake for decades. “A dam should be the last resort.”

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