Yakima Water Shortages Likely

The lack of snow pack this winter in the Northwest could spell problems for irrigators. That is especially true in areas that have had long term problems with water supply, like the Yakima basin.

The Yakima basin is an agricultural region that has dealt with water shortages for many years. The U.S. bureau of Reclamation serves several irrigation districts in the region, but while much of the water comes from the Yakima River, Reclamation spokeswoman Wendy Christiansen says a good portion is dependent on mountain snow pack.

Wendy Christiansen: “Three million acre feet of water is what we deliver, is what we have water rights for out of the Yakima so reclamation is responsible for 3 million acre feet. Our reservoirs comprise about 1 point six million acre feet, the rest of that balance about 1.4 is made up of snopack and rainfall.”

In recent years, more water users are finding they are not getting as much as water as they'd like. Ron Van Gundy is with the Rosa Irrigation district, the sixth largest such district in the state.

Ron Van Gundy: “Our entire project is made up of perennial crops, orchards and vineyards, and of course they have little ability to service water shortages of any severity”

Van Gundy explains that because the Rosa irrigation district has junior water rights, they receive a reduced ration of water by the latter part of the growing season. He says they normally go off irrigation by October 20th but in short water years can lose water as early as the first of September:

Ron Van Gundy: “It's a tremendous problem for orchards, especially newer varieties of apples, which see later harvest, se have some apples that don't get harvested until the first of November.”

Van Gundy says the water shortages have occurred about every five years for the last couple decades. The Bureau of Reclamation has looked for several years at ways to bolster water supplies. One example was the proposed construction of Black Rock reservoir, an idea that recently was shelved, in part because of its enormous cost of 8 billion dollars, as well as a cost benefit ratio that show the project would bring in only 13 cents for every dollar invested.

Now a couple of other ideas are being examined, including expansion of the existing Bumping Lake reservoir. Derrick Sandison from the Washington department of Ecology explains another called the Wymer Pumping and Storage Project.

Derrick Sandison: “The initial concept it would pump water from the Yakima river high up in the system and put it in a conveyance system, and put it back in the reservoir. It would allow itself to be part of an inter basin transfer with the Columbia river, so there's the possibility of a future modification to allow it to filled with the Yakima river or the Columbia or both.”

Environmental interests are concerned with some of the proposals may mean. Long time activist David Ortman says the Bumping lake proposal and the one at Wymer are actually decades old. He believes whenever a cost to benefit analysis of the two proposals is completed it will show it to be a bad investment for taxpayers, and not environmentally sound. He cites as an example the Kittitas irrigation district where 80 percent of the land is used to grow timothy hay of which much is exported to Japan:

David Ortman: “So here we have a system set up to subsidize farmers to grow timothy hay to be used in Japan, talk about a carbon footprint, when water that could be conserved could be used to restore fish runs and salmon”

Currently a work group made up of irrigators, federal and state agencies, Native Americans, and conservation groups are examining the Yakima basin water storage options, as well as other concepts, including the idea of increased water marketing, where water users can buy and trade their water from the irrigation system.

Copyright 2010 Spokane Public Radio