Yakima Basin Plan Could Flood Shoreline Community

Sep 13, 2012

A plan to manage central Washington’s water is not sitting well with some cabin owners. The water plan aims to enlarge a lake that would flood a small, shoreline community. Reporting for EarthFix, Courtney Flatt takes a look at how environmental planners balance the wish of some against the need of many.

A row of 16 cabins hugs the edge of central Washington’s Bumping Lake. You can hear the lake lapping at the banks and smell the pine trees. In this area, the eastern landscape meets the west.

The small summer homes have belonged to many families for several generations. Cabin owner Chris Maykut says he spent much of his childhood in these woods.

He hopes his daughter Raina can, too.

Raina bounces around the cabin. The 5-year-old climbs up to her favorite spot: the crow’s nest. Raina looks out a small window up at the treetops.

Raina: “It’s the highest part we can ever get.”

She points to the rafters as proof. A plan to manage central Washington’s future water needs would put the trees, cabins and area campgrounds under water. At the expanded reservoir’s peak level, cabin owners say their rooftops be inches from the surface.

The Yakima Basin plan aims to draw up a compromise among fishers, farmers and environmentalists. It’s a billion dollar, decades long undertaking. One compromise would build a new dam at Bumping Lake.

Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Walt Larrick says storing more water will be necessary as the climate warms.

Larrick: “We’re gonna look at all issues related to the watershed. And Bumping keeps coming back as a likely spot to impound some additional water for this basin. It just does. The ability of the watershed to produce water; the cost would be less to build a dam.”

Larrick says the plan is still developing, but if a bigger dam is built at Bumping Lake, the cabins could be moved up the bank or relocated somewhere else. He says the bureau understands how Bumping Lake owners feel.

Both cabin owners and water planners acknowledge the difficulties the western United States faces, as snowpack decreases and more precipitation falls as rain. Officials at the Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Department of Ecology say drier areas will need more water storage, especially as populations expand. They say, that’s why planning today is important. Cabin owners worry other lakes and reservoirs in the Pacific Northwest could also lose their property.

Back at Bumping Lake, cabin owners say expanding the reservoir would do more environmental harm than good.

Cabin owner Chris Maykut says water planners decided to enlarge Bumping Lake because it’s easier to take on cabin owners than to ask farmers downstream to give up some of the water they use for crop irrigation.

This is not a new fight, and it’s stirring up memories in the region. Since dam construction began in the Pacific Northwest, people have been displaced.

Marie Greer was one of those residents. A lake now covers the spot where she grew up, in the tiny town of Hebron, Ore. That’s about 30 miles south of Eugene.

Greer: “We were such a tight-knit community that it was extra hard.”

In 1939, she helped her parents pack up everything they owned and moved their home to what would become the bank of Cottage Grove Lake. It was a big task, and Greer says they didn’t get paid much.

She and her husband bought property on what would become the western edge of the lake. They watched the construction of the dam that would keep flooding at bay for the rest of the valley.

Greer: “Well, at first people were frightened, and then there was sort of anger. If you’re told suddenly that your home is going to be torn down or moved, and nothing you can do about it. And we needed the dams to control the rivers. It was a good thing, actually, but it was sure hard on the people who had to be moved.”

Back in those days, people did not get much say. An order was handed down, and then residents could protest.

But the way the government handles these situations is changing, says Mike Gerel. He works with Sustainable Northwest, a group that helps mediate discussions on environmental issues. Gerel says it’s all about communication.

Gerel: “People sometimes get caught up in the science, in the policy, in the law. It’s about people that are being impacted, that are doing the impacting, those that are neighboring.”

That’s what Bumping Lake cabin owners want, Chris Maykut says. He’s attended meetings about the Yakima Basin plan. Walking along his drive, Maykut says he’s trying to make his views known.

Chris Maykut: “If sometime five years from now, seven years from now, we’re having our last dinner at the cabin, what would it feel like if we stuck our heads in the sand and that was that versus we did everything we could?”

But his mother, Naydene, says she can’t imagine life without this cabin that her father built the year she was born. She sits on the porch -- an “x” is carved at her feet. She and her siblings marked that spot as the center of the universe.

Naydene Maykut: “I say that everybody I have ever loved has been here. And it’s just unbelievably precious to me.”

The Yakima Basin water plan still has a lengthy approval process. Agencies need to find funding and final deals need to be struck. That could be years down the road.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio