YAKIMA, Wash. — Officials say there’s been significant progress on a key component of an ambitious Yakima Basin water plan: the acquisition by the state of a nearly 50,000-acre tract of privately owned timberland in the Teanaway River Drainage, east of Cle Elum.
Talks about the acquisition, which would protect the land from development, have progressed to a point where land appraisals are being prepared. Parties to the discussion include state agencies, a conservation group and the landowner, American Forest Land Co.
The forested property between Cle Elum and Blewett Pass is the largest of some 71,000 acres identified for watershed and habitat protection in the basin and a component of the broader plan — which include: expanded storage at Bumping Lake; a new reservoir at Wymer in the Yakima River Canyon; fish passage at basin dams; habitat improvements; operational changes; water marketing; and water conservation — with a total estimated price tag of $5 billion.
Federal funds will be sought for the bulk of the project cost, along with state and local funds.
Other areas identified for possible purchase are 10,000 acres in the headwaters of the Little Naches River, and 15,000 acres of shrub steppe habitat in the Yakima River Canyon that is owned by the Jack Eaton family.
Conservation groups like American Rivers, the Wilderness Society and others are supporting the overall plan and see the land acquisition as critical to improving water quality for fish and wildlife and protecting the watershed for downstream irrigation needs.
Derek Sandison, representing the state Department of Ecology, which is a co-sponsor of the plan along with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said the Teanaway aquisition is “moving along faster than had been anticipated.”
The progress was noted Wednesday in Yakima as members of a broad-based work group reviewed progress on the overall project, known as the Yakima River Basin Integrated Resource Management Plan. Representatives of local, state and federal agencies, the Yakama Nation, irrigators and conservation groups drafted the plan more than two years.
Those involved in the acquisition talks, however, caution that there’s no timetable for completing the purchase and the state still needs authority and funding from the Legislature to make it a reality.
“We can’t make any final commitments. We are exploring arrangements that could be made,” Sandison said.
David Bowen of Ellensburg, president of the American Forest Land Co., said a review of appraisals, price negotiations and a discussion of different ways to finance a purchase still must be completed. But he added the landowner has chosen to focus on a sale rather than pursuing development. Public access for summer and winter recreation would be maintained under public ownership.
Jeff Tayer, who recently retired as state Department of Fish and Wildlife regional director and is now a consultant on the land acquisition element of the overall plan, called the Teanaway River a significant tributary for threatened steelhead and bull trout as well as salmon. The forest also has habitat for spotted owl and other wildlife species.
“We want to make sure the area has a future for fish, wildlife and recreation,” said Tayer.
A first step to find money for the acquisition and the other pieces of the integrated plan is expected in January. Sandison said a bill will be introduced to follow through on outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire’s commitment to pursue state money for the plan. The proposed measure, now undergoing review by the state Office of Financial Management, would seek $20 million in the state capital budget as seed money to attract federal funds.
The $20 million would be in addition to more than $6 million already allocated to work on all of the plan’s seven major elements. Backers have devised a budget that proposes to spend $160 million over the next three years to move the plan forward.
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