Our Voice: Yakima Basin water plan needs ongoing push

A mild winter has its advantages.

Traveling by car is easier without worrying about icy roads, kids can play outside longer and gardeners can get a head-start on their yards.

But while our early spring-like weather has been pleasant, it could cause trouble this summer if there is a lack of water.

The snowpack in the Cascade Mountains is extremely low, which means less water for the reservoir for the Yakima Basin. State officials and irrigators already are prepping for a potential drought in areas that rely on Yakima River water.

A long-term plan to increase water storage in the Cascades and improve fish runs has been on the table for several years, but needs government financing to continue. The Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan is a collaborative proposal that was hammered out by environmental organizations, the Yakama Nation, irrigation districts, federal and state agencies, and county and city officials.

It is impressive that so many groups that often find themselves at odds with each other could come together and agree on such a comprehensive plan. Funding for the plan must be requested at the state and federal levels every year so progress can be made.

Just last week, representatives from the Yakima Basin Watershed Enhancement Program met with Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., in Washington, D.C., to seek his support for the project. So much work has gone into the plan and the need is critical. Longer term, this is the solution that will ensure a reliable water supply.

Melting snow typically fills the Yakima River during the summer, making water available for agencies like the Roza Irrigation District, which serves the Yakima Valley and customers near Prosser and Benton City. Since it has “junior” water rights, it means its water can be reduced. Columbia Irrigation District, however, has “senior” water rights, so even though it also uses Yakima River water, the state and federal government can’t limit it.

Irrigators that use Columbia River water don’t have the same concerns this year because the snowpack in Canada was enough and the river should be at near-normal flows.

Two-thirds of Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District water rights are “senior” but the rest can be limited in a drought. The whole tier-system for irrigation districts means some areas in Eastern Washington likely will get by just fine while others will to have to watch every drop.

It would be so much better if there was enough storage in the first place so that all farmers and landowners could manage a drought year without a struggle.

The best hope for now is continued support for the the Yakima Basin Integrated Resource Management Plan. Eventually, it will make all the difference.