Our Voice: Water storage imperative to offset potential drought

Living in an area ringed by rivers, we can forget that water is not always in abundant supply.

It has been a few summers since we experienced significant water rationing for irrigating our lawns and landscaping.

But all it takes is one mild winter to set off a reaction of water shortages affecting agriculture,the livelihoods of our farmers and the green of our yards.

Our neighbors in the Roza Irrigation District, one of those that is hardest hit in a dry year, will soon see a more stable water supply for Yakima River water users during the summer season thanks to a 39-acre reservoir being built in a dry lakebed north of Sunnyside.

While Gov. Jay Inslee sees the $26 million reservoir as a way to deal with climate change, we see it as a way to secure a steady water supply for towns, fields and fish. In a year with light snowpack in the Cascades, the reservoir will breathe new life into the region.

With the water storage facility, the irrigation district will be able to pull less water from the Yakima River and dump less water into wasteways. In a normal year, that will mean diverting 5,500 fewer acre feet of water.

The state and the irrigation district are both providing $4.55 million for the project, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation is picking up the balance.

The Roza is particularly affected during a year with light snowpack because it has junior water rights. Water access is tiered system based on rights, and for the Roza its junior status means the amount of irrigation water it can pull out of the Yakima River is reduced.

Droughts in the 1970s forced the Roza to work on conservation efforts, but even that is not enough to combat the impact of low snowpack. Two small reservoirs were installed as well.

The new reservoir will make a world of difference. Located 55 miles from where the Roza fills its canal upstream from Selah, the facility will act as a kind of shock absorber for the irrigation water distribution system. Water will be stored in the reservoir and released when needed by farms and homes in the Benton City and Prosser areas.

The reservoir will give the district more control, and provide water during critical times to the wine grapes that dominate the lower portion of the district.

The Roza project sets a precedent for us. The rest of the Mid-Columbia is also at risk for drought in dry years. Over the years several projects have been proposed; none has been selected.

Black Rock is the one that comes to most people's minds -- a huge 1.7 million acre-foot reservoir that would have been east of Yakima -- but after years of study and consideration was deemed unfeasible.

If Black Rock, or any of the other ideas, is not the answer, it still leaves us with the question. What will we do about water storage?

Black Rock may not be the right solution but not enough is being done to find one and there's little doubt more storage will be needed.