We know about low-hanging fruit here in orchard country, so it’s a fitting metaphor as the federal Bureau of Reclamation moves forward with a trio of relatively small but nonetheless useful projects in the Yakima River Basin Integrated Plan.
Several proposals that have drawn the most attention and controversy are well into the future, such as new storage on a Yakima River tributary in the Yakima River Canyon or an expansion of the Bumping Lake Reservoir. The Bureau of Reclamation is making progress, however, on projects that won’t add to water supply but will allow the agency to better manage what is now available.
The projects involve existing storage in the Snoqualmie Pass area; one would raise the Cle Elum reservoir by 3 feet, another would add a lower outtake at the Kachess reservoir and a third would build a tunnel to move water from the Keechelus reservoir to Kachess. Together, these would add 214,000 acre-feet of water storage to the Yakima River Basin.
Agriculture is an almost $10 billion-a-year business in Washington, and Central Washington comprises the heart of the state’s ag industry. State officials have recognized the need for continued growth in the ag sector, but the growth won’t happen without an expanded and reliable water supply. These three projects will help long-term, but they are also important to the here and now; as it is, junior water rights holders suffer in low snowpack years. And drought conditions reduce instream water flows that are essential to fish survival.
But even the here and now will be awhile in coming, even for these relatively simple projects. Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology have just begun the environmental review process, which included meetings recently that offered information and allowed public comments, as required by law. The environmental studies are to be completed by 2015.
Congress authorized the Lake Cle Elum project in 1994 but has yet to approve money; the Kachess and Keechelus projects will need both congressional authorization and funding in budget-conscious times. So getting approval and money is still a couple of years in the future at best, even for a project of this relatively modest scale.
Serious upgrades to the Yakima River Basin’s water storage have been a long time coming and won’t come tomorrow. But the payoff will be economic viability for generations to come, and that will be well worth the wait and the work.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.