Climate-forced water planning in Washington’s Yakima Valley

Prepping for future climate change means fixing past mistakes.

  • A farmer tends hops in Yakima, Washington, where the new Jobs, Water and Fish plan is expected to keep irrigation waters flowing, even in drought years.


Before becoming Washington's governor in 2013, Jay Inslee championed clean energy and fought for wilderness in Congress. He also represented the Yakima Valley, so it's no surprise that the first bill he's pushed through the state Legislature is a $130 million "Jobs, Water and Fish" plan, designed to jumpstart the Yakima Integrated Plan, thus helping the arid valley's fish and its $3.2 billion agricultural industry adapt to climate change.

Six dams currently block Yakima Basin fish from their ancestral spawning streams in the Cascades, bad snow years leave orchards, hop farms and vineyards parched, and there's little water left over for salmon or federally protected bull trout and steelhead. "With the uncertain future of the climate and snowpack, these challenges will grow," Inslee said June 30, while signing the bill. New dams have periodically been proposed to help irrigators, but the Yakima Integrated Plan abandons the largest of those, instead calling for increased storage in existing reservoirs, building fish passages, and restoring and protecting habitat.

The plan, which could ultimately cost $5 billion, does include one new dam, leading some to dismiss it as a climate change-cloaked excuse for the Bureau of Reclamation to revive the same water management practices that helped decimate Northwest fisheries in the first place. "It's hard to imagine that there is any benefit so great that it would justify building another dam," says John Osborn, director of the Sierra Club's Columbia River Future Project.

But doing nothing could be disastrous for the plan's stakeholders, including conservation groups, the Yakama Nation and the state and federal governments. Blending traditional infrastructure projects with restoration may be the only politically viable way to repair past wrongs and prepare for the future. "I think climate change, and the way that old-school water management has impacted a basin like the Yakima, means that you have to think about making some big adjustments to what is currently pretty messed-up plumbing," says Michael Garrity, state conservation director for American Rivers, a group that promotes restoration and, often, dam removal. "We're not going to make it an unplumbed system and force out all of the agricultural development in the basin."

The new law comes from one of the first federal Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART studies. Since 2009, the program has analyzed water scarcity in around two dozen Western basins, including the Colorado River, Klamath and Los Angeles basins, to help with long-term, sustainable water management in the face of climate change.

Most of the Yakima River's summer flow comes from mountain snowpack, which keeps reservoirs flush until late in the growing season. As the climate warms, more precipitation will fall as rain. The snowpack will melt faster and earlier, and existing reservoirs aren't big enough to capture the early runoff to use in the summer.

In severely low snowpack years, such as from 1992 to 1994, and 2001 and 2005, irrigators lacking priority water rights have already been cut off, and even long-lived crops like fruit trees withered. By the 2080s, the shrinking Cascades snow bank will leave junior rights holders dry much more frequently, and sometimes impact even senior rights holders, according to the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, whose modeling factored into the WaterSMART study and the Yakima plan.

The Yakima Integrated Plan's mix of storage, efficiency, infrastructure, and voluntary water conservation and trading should ensure that even junior water-rights holders get at least 70 percent of their water in the future. It includes tapping 200,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Kachess, near Cle Elum, that the current outlet can't draw on because it isn't deep enough, lining leaky canals, building a pipeline to keep irrigation releases out of the river so too-high flows can't hurt migrating salmon, increasing the capacity of Bumping Lake just east of Mount Rainier, and building the Wymer Dam to create a new 162,500 acre-foot reservoir on Lmuma Creek north of Yakima.

The plan presents a dilemma for Washington's environmental groups, and the Sierra Club's state chapter opposes it, partly because expanding the Bumping reservoir will drown about 1,000 acres of old-growth, spotted-owl habitat, and the lakeshore's cabins. The economics of the Bumping and Wymer projects are concerns, too. But American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, The Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation feel the plan's benefits outweigh its impacts.

For example, it funds conservation of 50,000 acres, some of it former timberland, on the Teanaway River, a Yakima tributary with great potential as a natural steelhead nursery. The Yakama Nation supports the plan because it promises fish passages on every Yakima dam, and an eventual $450 million to restore dried-up creeks and obstructed lakes that once held sockeye, summer chinook and coho salmon -- raising hopes that the tribe may one day get to fully use its treaty fishery rights.

The tribe, with state and local governments, is moving dikes and other obstacles that interfere with the floodplain's role as a natural reservoir for cold water that releases slowly into the river, helping fish survive in a semi-desert. "I've always pushed for an approach to climate change that is based on restoring lost watershed functions," says Yakama Nation hydrogeologist Tom Ring.

The plan's first steps -- the land conservation deal, water conservation and trading, habitat restoration and lining up permitting for fish passage and expanding storage -- are already in motion. As it plays out over the next 30 years or so, the state will put up half the funding; water users and Congress would supply the rest -- a potentially tough sell given tight local budgets and lawmakers' resistance to more federal spending.

However far it gets, the plan seems less like a radical response to shifting water supplies than an attempt to fortify an out-of-date system. "Nearly every major water system in the country is in a state of crisis, or near crisis, and that's not due to climate change," says hydrologist Alan Hamlet, formerly of the Climate Impacts Group. He blames aging infrastructure, growing populations, and lack of investment in water systems. "(It) really comes down to resource limitations."

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