Up to now, this winter has been marked by a decent cold snap, a fair bit of seasonal chill and a dearth of snow in the lowlands and — more importantly — in the highlands. Winter recreation has taken a real hit, as have the businesses that cater to it, and concern is starting to shift toward the size of the snowpack.
Cascade Mountain snows, of course, fuel the water supply that is the lifeblood of the agriculture-based economy in the Yakima Valley. According to the National Weather Service, the Yakima River Basin has about half the normal snowpack for this time of year.
Experts are split over the significance of the shortage at this point in the snow season. If precipitation comes this month and continues into spring, we should be fine. But it’s fair to say that more eyes are scanning the skies in the hope of seeing clouds laden with snow.
The Valley is no stranger to drought and to the steps taken to deal with it. In bad years, junior water-rights holders have their supply limited, and farmers have gone to the expense of drilling wells to supplement their supply. Farmers have had to make difficult decisions on which crops to water and which to let wither and die. The needs of farms must be balanced with those of fish, which require stream flows at certain levels in order to survive.
That’s why key stakeholders in Central Washington have worked hard in recent years to forge a compromise that increases the region’s water supply. These stakeholders include local and state governments, the Yakama Nation, federal officials, irrigators, farm groups and selected environmental groups. The compromise involves conservation, water banking and increased storage.
Agriculture is an almost $10 billion-a-year industry in this state, a major employer that creates spinoff jobs in transportation and Puget Sound ports, among other areas. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire has pointed to expanded storage as essential to the state’s future economic health, and Gov. Jay Inslee also understands of the importance of a more stable water supply to the state’s economic health. Lawmakers of both parties have approved measures like purchasing land to protect the Teanaway River watershed and a project that more effectively manages water in upper Kittitas County.
We’ve enjoyed a string of good water years recently, so we may be due for a bad one. In any event, the dry spell is a reminder of the need to continue moving forward on Yakima River Basin storage, one of 10 items in the Herald-Republic’s Wish List for 2014. Worry is almost a constant state in agriculture, and a more reliable water supply would give farmers a lot less to worry about.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.