An irrigation canal managed by the Wapato Irrigation District that supplies water to land farmed by Aaron Olson.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- The Kittitas Reclamation District and Trout Unlimited are studying ways to improve water transfers throughout the Yakima River Basin, thanks to $553,000 in federal and state grants.

The effort is part of the massive Yakima Basin integrated water management plan, a project involving federal, state and county authorities aimed at assuring enough water in the basin for fish, farmers and residents.

For years, water has been overallocated in the basin, with many farmers seeing their water allocations cut short during drought years. A proliferation of rural domestic wells throughout the basin has contributed to the problem.

The study by Kittitas Reclamation and Trout Unlimited intends to devise a smoother and quicker transfer of water rights or water usage agreements. The 18-month study underway is being funded by a $355,000 grant from the state Department of Ecology and a $198,000 grant from the Bureau of Reclamation.

Past water transactions will be studied to discover any problems that may have slowed the transfers and what could be done to fix them, said Justin Bezold, project manager with Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving fisheries.

“The end goal is to improve efficiency,” he said. “We’re going to look at water rights, how they’ve moved in the past, people who have been involved in those, and apply lessons learned to develop a more structured process to move water on a more timely basis.”

For example, establishing a system that would allow for a faster transfer of water could involve a prepaid water transfer system, said Urban Eberhart, secretary-manager for the Kittitas Reclamation District.

The basin is composed of senior and junior water rights holders, with senior rights being superior. During drought years, junior rights holders often face drastic rationing and are unable to water crops.

Having a prepaid water transfer system that junior rights holders pay into would allow senior water rights holders to bank some of their supply for junior holders in a year when water supply runs short, Eberhart said.

“If each year that person had been paying into an account, a dry-year option, that would trigger a sale of water to a prearranged water transfer,” he said.

The study also will look at groundwater and the transfer of water rights to allow future rural development and review state law regarding such transfers to see if any changes are needed, he said.

Improving the water transfer market is one of several focuses of the basin’s integrated plan that includes habitat restoration, fish passages and improve water storage projects, he said.

“Of all the pieces we’re putting together, marketing is an important part,” he said.