By Justin Bezold,
Project manager, Yakima, WA
No easy, one-size-fits-all solution to steelhead recovery exists in Washington; the state’s western third is often wet and lush, seemingly with water to spare year-round. The eastern two-thirds are arid and sparse, with dry streams common during critical steelhead migration and spawning periods.
While part of the underlying cause to low water conditions is climate, an equal part is water use. In the Yakima Basin this is readily apparent.
Water rights and irrigated agriculture are as much of Washington’s history as the decline and recovery of fisheries. Steelhead, rightfully, called the Yakima Basin home well before settlers developed water rights blocking fish access to spawning grounds. Yet water rights helped build the Basin into the agricultural powerhouse we see today.
The Yakima Basin is extremely valuable to Washington’s economy, contributing tens of thousands of jobs and more than $4 billion annually. Moreover, the Basin’s 500,000-plus acres of irrigated agriculture (including orchards, wine grapes, hay, and hops) need more than 1.7 million acre-feet of water each year. This water need historically pitted farmers, fish, and municipalities against each other and created decades of conflict over water.
Complicating things is climate change. Yakima Basin climate projections predict a warmer basin year-round. Warmer winters mean less snow and more rain. Hotter summers mean increased water demands. The result is a strain on our resources and the species relying on them, particularly recovering steelhead.
Situations like this often lack clear winners. But Yakima Basin is developing a different narrative. Rather than continue fighting and suffering over differences, leaders representing the Basin’s nearly 400,000 Washingtonians came together to listen and set aside differences.
The resulting conversation has a new tone of compassion and change. In 2009, environmental, agricultural, tribal, and governmental interests developed the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan The Plan’s key part is its inclusiveness. Designed for implementation over 30 years, the Plan’s seven elements—fish passage, fish habitat enhancement, reservoir structural and operational modifications, increased surface storage, groundwater storage, enhanced water conservation, and market-based reallocation—will provide a better future for fish, farms, and communities facing climate change.
Creating the Plan is a great feat. Now we must follow through to implement the seven elements. We need, and greatly appreciate, strong support and leadership from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington, D.C. Together they are advancing through Congress the “Yakima Bill” that authorizes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to implement the initial phase (first 10 years) of the Plan. The results are impressive, with Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor calling the Plan “a model . . . for any natural resources management [issues].”
More recently, Plan proponents received further D.C. support from U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse and U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert. Together they authored a letter requesting conference committee members find a way to preserve the Yakima Bill in the current Energy Bill. The letter reiterates the need to “be proactive. . .[and offer] a solution that will give water users more certainty, while also recognizing the concerns of conservationists and the various stakeholders in the Yakima River Basin.” We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who got us here, especially our congressional leadership.
The trust and collaboration developed in both Washingtons continue paying dividends as we implement the Plan.Recently in the Upper Yakima Basin, TU and the Kittitas Reclamation District (“KRD”) are implementing a truly unique, novel project. The project is seemingly simple: fix leaking sections of KRD’s canal system, conserve water, and then deliver the water as supplemental flows to upper river tributaries for fish benefits. This project will add permanence to KRD’s 2015 tributary rehydration project, which kept streams wet during irrigation season for the first time in a very long time.
The TU-KRD project details are simple. KRD diverts water from the Upper Yakima River into canals with up to 30% leakage in places. The canals carry water to users while leaked water eventually returns to the river. Our approach is to find the worst leaking sections, plug holes, conserve water, and then convey conserved water to tributaries-canal intersections. At these points, KRD spills conserved water into flow-limited creeks for fish and ecosystem benefits.
The unique part is the project’s flexibility to quickly deliver water to any of several streams at different times of the year, thus maximizing conserved water and instream flow benefits. This project keeps fish cool and wet as temperatures rise and flows drop without depriving irrigators’ vital water.
The Plan and the Basin’s future are co-mingled. For trout and salmon the Plan increases fish recovery chances. For water users the Plan provides necessary certainty and reliability to maintain agricultural operations and adapt to climate change. For everyone the Plan presents an alternative to arguing.
With steelhead recovering and the Plan progressing, Trout Unlimited is proud of our Yakima Basin success to date and excited to continue working.