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Kittitas County: DOE Water Proposal could hurt financially – Would shift 71,000 acres of land to ‘public’ ownership

By JUSTIN PITTMAN staff writer 
Daily Record 

Posted 12/15/2012

Kittitas County, WA – A county study released this week says that part of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan aimed at protecting and enhancing watersheds would have negative financial impacts on Kittitas County.

The Yakima Basin plan aims to enhance water supplies and ecosystems in the Yakima River Basin through measures like habitat and fisheries improvements, expanded reservoir storage and conservation. The plan would include improvements in Yakima, Benton and Kittitas counties and could cost an estimated $5 billion to fully implement.

Yakima River Basin Water Resource PlanThe county’s study looked only at a section of the plan dealing with land ownership changes, the creation of new national recreation areas in Kittitas County and the addition of new wild and scenic river designations. That section of the plan would shift about 71,000 acres of private land into public ownership. The land transfers would include shrub-steppe habitat in the Yakima River Canyon, areas in the headwaters of Manastash Creek, Taneum Creek and the Little Naches River and high elevation portions of the Teanaway River Basin.

The study found the financial impact locally could vary significantly, depending upon whether the county invests in recreational infrastructure such as trails and campgrounds.

If the county makes recreation investments, the land ownership and designation changes outlined in the plan would result in an estimated loss of $201,016 in economic activity, according to the study. If the county does not invest in infrastructure, the loss would be about $868,351.

Economic impact

Breaking down those totals, the county’s construction industry stands to lose about $500,000 annually, and the agriculture industry would see an annual decline of $100,000, according to the study.

The county’s recreation industry would gain about $1.33 million if the changes are implemented with public investment in infrastructure, and $116,447 if the changes move forward without public investment.

The study found that county government revenues would rise an estimated $15,202 with or without infrastructure improvements. If investments are made, county government expenses would rise $600,000. Without improvements, county government expenses would rise $250,000, according to the study.

The study also analyzes possible land-use changes. It predicts the proposed changes will result in increased or unchanged levels of public use and access, recreation and environmental protection on the land. All of the changes will result in decreased or unchanged levels of residential and agricultural development, the study said.

County approves

The Kittitas County Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the study’s findings Thursday and requested the recommendations be incorporated into the plan after hearing a presentation on the topic from commissioner Paul Jewell. Jewell made a similar presentation Wednesday in Yakima to the group working on the plan.

“Overall, I think that we’ve got a good product,” he said. “I personally am satisfied with the product.”

Jewell said the study predicts an increase in costs for the county to provide services (like roads, search and rescue and law enforcement), and shifting large sections of land from public to private ownership could increase the tax burden on other property owners in Kittitas County.

Jewell said the land ownership changes, new National Recreation Areas and new wild and scenic river areas would hit Kittitas County harder than other areas in the Yakima Basin, and relying on federal and state payment in lieu of taxes funds — which compensate counties for revenue lost from non-taxable public lands — could be risky.

If those funds continue to be distributed at current rates, the county could see a $17,667 increase in annual federal funding and a $36,296 increase in annual state funding, Jewell said.

Jill Scheffer, a senior managing conservation director for conservation group Forterra, said it might be problematic for the county to rely on payment in lieu of taxes funding that could likely disappear in the future. Scheffer served on a citizens advisory committee organized by the county to make recommendations regarding the land changes. She said the possibility that state and federal compensation funds might end makes measures proposed to ease the land changes’ impact on the Kittitas County more important.

In addition to the payment in lieu of taxes funds, the study suggests setting up an endowment fund using a one time $15 million investment for ongoing county expenses and a fund to support recreational infrastructure improvements.

The study

Kittitas County commissioned the URS Corporation to conduct the study in November 2011 with $100,000 in funds provided by the state Department of Ecology.

The study only considered impacts and benefits to the county that would result from the watershed protection portion of the Yakima Basin plan, Jewell said. He said Kittitas County would experience the most impact from land ownership changes, while benefits of the plan as a whole would be basin-wide. The watershed protection section of the plan also would create new National Recreation Areas and Wilderness Areas on public lands in the county and designate new Wild and Scenic River areas along the Teanaway, Upper Cle Elum, Waptus and Cooper rivers.

As part of the study, commissioners convened a 17-member citizens advisory committee to develop recommendations.

“We’re totally in support of (the Yakima River Basin plan as a whole),” Scheffer said. “We’re concerned that the bulk of the proposed land acquisitions are just for us.”

She said it makes sense that most of the land acquisitions would occur in Kittitas County, but there need to be more consideration  of impacts on the county’s economy and way of life.

Scheffer said land acquisition and designation proposals in the Yakima Basin plan are fairly vague, and isolating impacts of just those proposals was challenging.

“I would have loved if it was more black and white, and it was easier to say, ‘We know this was going to happen and this is the impact,’” Scheffer said.

She thinks some of the study’s conclusions could be questioned, but is happy with the outcome.

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