Water shortages that threaten the agricultural economies of Benton, Yakima and Kittitas counties will persist if an ambitious plan does not move forward to provide an integrated approach to water management in the Yakima Basin, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on Tuesday.

She spoke at a committee hearing for a bill introduced by Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act. Cantwell is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The committee heard favorable comments from a diverse group representing state, tribal, environmental and irrigation interests that has worked together to come up with a plan all can support.

Tom Iseman, deputy assistant secretary for water and science for the U.S. Department of the Interior, lent qualified administration support, saying more study of the bill is needed, but that “there is a lot of risk if we do nothing.”

“We need to make investments now,” he said. “This plan is identifying the activities and how we are going to fund them in partnership to build resilience to drought.”

The Kennewick Irrigation District has some concerns about the project, however. KID officials were not among those at the Senate committee hearing, but staff discussed it at the KID board meeting, also on Tuesday.

KID draws its water from the Yakima River. But its allocation is based on return flows from water diverted from the river upstream and then flowing back into the river through groundwater, as measured by gauges upstream near Union Gap and near the KID’s diversion near Prosser.

The irrigation district can take whatever is available above target flows, which is not a problem in non-drought years, said Seth Defoe, KID planning manager.

However, no modeling has been done to see how conservation measures that are part of the enhancement project, such as lining canals to reduce water leaking into the ground, would affect the KID allocation, he said in comments during and after the meeting.

If less water leaks from canals above Prosser, less water will return to the river between Union Gap and Prosser. In addition, part of federal legislation calls for raising target flows to increase water to benefit fish, potentially reducing the amount KID could use.

KID also might have the opportunity to buy some of the increased water available in the Lake Kachess storage project included in the proposed project. A pumping plant would be installed to reach water below the reservoir outlet that cannot be accessed now to provide relief in drought years.

The Lake Kachess project would largely be paid for by users and could be too costly to interest KID, Defoe said. Some projections estimate a cost of $2,000 per acre foot of water, which is about four times the amount paid for water leases during the current drought year.

Although the plan is intended to encompass the entire Yakima Basin, it mostly covers irrigation interests farther upriver, plus providing habitat for the benefit of fisheries, Defoe said.

Studies have not be completed that would show how KID could be affected by the Lake Kachess proposal or to model return flows available, he said.

The district is not necessarily opposed to the project, just concerned that it will not be harmed, he said. KID officials plan to meet with congressional staff to discuss their concerns and possible ways the legislation could benefit the district.

The value of the agriculture economy, including processing, for Benton, Yakima and Kittitas counties is about $3.2 billion annually, said speakers at the Senate committee hearing. Crops include apples, sweet cherries, wine grapes and most of the hops grown in the United States.

“Without this plan, the Yakima Basin will likely face continued water shortages and economic impacts, estimated by the state this year to reach $1.2 billion in crop loss,” Cantwell said.

She expects the drought conditions to persist in the coming years.

Climate modeling has predicted substantial reductions in snow pack depth and duration before mid-century, said Derek Sandison, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The Yakima Basin is heavily dependent on the snow pack on the east slope of the Cascades to supply water to the semi-arid portion of the Yakima Basin during summer months.

The full integrated plan could provide 500,000 acre-feet more water during a drought mid-century than is available during the current drought, he said.

The initial phase of the proposed project, covering the first 10 of 30 years, would cost an estimated $900 million, with irrigators expected to pay half of that to cover the Kachess storage and a related project. The state Legislature agreed in 2013 to pay up to 50 percent of the total cost of the 30-year project and federal money also would be needed.

“The Bureau of Reclamation’s statutory mandate to manage the basin’s dams, hydropower facilities and irrigation infrastructure, and legal requirements to manage stream flows for tribal, fisheries and other needs means that the federal role is part of the solution,” Cantwell said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the integrated plan could serve as a legislative model for other areas of the nation to come up with solutions to their own water wars that would benefit diverse water users.

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