A proposal to build a floating barge on Lake Kachess in Upper Kittitas County to pump water in times of drought was identified as the preferred alternative in a recent environmental study.

The $252 million project would provide water for Yakima-area irrigators, improve habitat for fish and enhance streamflows. It is part of the Yakima basin integrated water management plan, a 30-year, multibillion-dollar project that would add water storage, improve fish passage and restore river flows in Kittitas, Yakima and Benton counties.

The Kachess pumping plan would make 200,000 acre-feet of water available to irrigators that’s not now accessible when the state declares a drought.

Tom Tebb, director of the Department of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River, said that the pumping plant would only be authorized during a drought and afterward to refill the reservoir. Tebb said the project was attractive “from both a cost and impact perspective.”

“The floating pumping plant is by far the most cost-effective, both in construction and life cycle costs,” Tebb said.

The Roza Irrigation District, Kittitas Reclamation District, Kennewick Irrigation District and the Wapato Irrigation Project all have previously expressed interest in the project.

Currently, the Roza Irrigation District alone would be responsible for paying for and building the pump, though other irrigation districts could step in. Roza looked at the possibility of building an emergency pump at Kachess during the 2015 drought, but did not move forward.

The study, which looked at seven options, was released in March by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology. Alternatives that examined conveying excess water from Lake Keechelus to Lake Kachess were not identified as projects to carry forward.

The pumping barge — expected to be 80 feet wide, 90 feet long and 7 feet deep — would be a permanent feature that would float on the surface of the Kachess. Officially, the project is called the Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant, or KDRPP.

The plan also includes fish passage improvements to help the lake’s bull trout and other fish.

The agencies received more than 2,000 comments from the public on the draft and final studies.

While many stakeholders have voiced support for the pumping plant and the overall project, homeowners living near Kachess said they plan to keep fighting a pumping station on the lake.

Roza irrigators

Roza Irrigation District Manager Scott Revell said the district gets some of its water from the Kachess Reservoir’s active pool each year. KDRPP will draw water from the inactive portion.

Revell said 90 percent of the emergency drought wells in the Yakima Basin are in the Roza Irrigation District. Roza growers pay to operate those wells during drought years and, in some cases, pay more to operate and maintain those wells than they would after KDRPP is built. The estimated cost for the Kachess project is $1,000 per acre-foot, Revell said.

“KDRPP reduces the economic impacts from percentage point drops in the irrigation season and, over a few droughts, will compensate for the costs of the project,” he noted.

Revell said the Kachess project will be financed over several decades to reduce the annual cost to water users, who will cover construction and operating costs.

Variables driving how much water would be drawn from the Kachess Reservoir include the number of participating entities in the project, the size and respective shares of KDRPP and the severity and frequency of droughts. Revell said he expects the floating pumping plant to run intermittently, as necessitated by severe drought and recovery conditions and climate change.

“Depending on the severity of the water shortage, Roza will still be restricting deliveries, leasing water, easing the internal pooling restrictions among Roza growers, utilizing system shutdowns and ending the irrigation season early, even with the Kachess project,” Revell said.

Roza’s irrigation diversion during the 2015 drought season was just under 192,000 acre-feet, Revell added. That year, the district looked into the possibility of constructing a temporary emergency floating pumping plant at Kachess, projected to access 50,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of roughly $58 million, or about $1,160 per acre foot, Revell said.

Revell said that Roza growers were “solidly in favor of the project, at that cost, for a one-time use facility.” He said the permanent project also has received support from Roza farmers.

“Two of the largest row crop growers, who opposed the emergency pumping plant in 2015 because it was a one-time use facility, support the permanent KDRPP project,” he said.

Revell said that most farms in the Roza Irrigation District are diversified, meaning they grow high-value crops such as hops and blueberries and also lower-value crops such as hay and juice grapes. Revell said the diversified growers also support the project.

“KDRPP will provide very important improvements in drought year water supply reliability,” Revell said. “Roza, the Roza Board, and our growers strongly support the floating pumping plant option because it is cost effective. We believe the challenges of that option can be addressed.”

Homeowner concerns

Tebb noted that the pumping plant and its operations “would have an impact on the visual quality of Kachess, with a pumping plant on the water surface and, during drought and the refill period, water levels in Kachess lower than under current operations.”

Revell is well aware of homeowner uneasiness about the implementation of KDRPP: He’s collected a six-page list of concerns brought to him from area homeowners over the years.

Bill Campbell, a Kachess resident who purchased his home more than 35 years ago, said just because stakeholders are aware of the concerns does not mean that those concerns are being addressed, or even heard.

Campbell said the floating pump was not justifiable, based on cost and environmental concerns, and it’s too early to make a decision on the pumping plant. Campbell said he has yet to see a cost plan, a mitigation plan for wells that may fail from decreased groundwater levels, or adequate provisions for the reservoir’s bull trout.

The study found 15 of 107 nearby wells may see decreased groundwater levels in aquifers adjacent to the reservoir in a drawdown. Gordon Brandt, the president of the East Lake Kachess Homeowners Association, said he is one of the homeowners who would be affected.

“Data on my well happens to be specifically included in the (environmental study), and it shows that my well will go dry,” Brandt said. “That means that my home will be uninhabitable.”

Brandt said the environmental study lacks details about what exactly “mitigation” means. He has unanswered questions about how long it would take to drill his well deeper, whether he or Reclamation would be responsible for the drilling and its cost and whether he would have to buy a bigger well pump.

He’s also worried about what draining the Kachess an additional 80 feet would mean for the town of Easton — as well as his water rights.

Tebb said that Ecology “has committed to assisting homeowners in securing potable water supplies should they demonstrate drought pumping has impacted these resources.”

Several homeowners voiced concern that the projected drawdown would “drain” Lake Kachess. Revell said the inactive pool at Kachess contains 585,000 acre-feet of water. In a “worst-case scenario,” the 80-foot drop in water levels due to removing the projected 200,000 acre-feet of water would still leave 385,000 acre-feet of inactive storage in Lake Kachess, Revell said.

It would take two to five years to refill from other reservoirs in the Yakima Project system, officials said.

For Jay Schwartz, a Kachess homeowner and business consultant for strategy and finance, KDRPP and the floating pump station are “bad economics” and don’t take a long-term vision.

“My big issue with the integrated plan is that it’s taking the land grant-era water right mentality and continuing it,” he said. “But when you look ahead 100 years, that mentality will not solve the water strategy problems, when water will get scarce.”

Tribal involvement

Phil Rigdon, the director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Yakama Nation, said the tribe has been involved and consulted since the outset of the project.

Tribal members used the Upper Kittitas County lakes historically for salmon, and they are connected to legends and stories in the culture.

Rigdon said he’s satisfied with how the process is unfolding and that the governmental agencies involved will be respectful of the tribe’s cultural and spiritual ties to the site.

“It’s an active part of who we are, but for a very long time, we’ve been missing an important part of that story, the fish,” he said.

Rigdon said that when Lake Kachess and Lake Keechelus were converted to Reclamation reservoirs in the early 20th century, they were constructed without fish passages, which “caused great economic and cultural hardship to the Yakama people.”

The Yakama Nation has worked for decades to restore the once bountiful fishery of the Yakima Basin, while also “actively working to ensure a stable supply of irrigation water for the basin’s agricultural interests.”

“After many decades of conflict, we have changed the paradigm to one of respecting each other’s needs and working together,” Rigdon said. “This is a very long road.”

What happens next

Tebb said that KDRPP represents an important milestone.

“It shows that integrated plan approach to take care of the fish, farms, and forests of the Yakima basin is the right way to proceed,” he said.

Reclamation now must issue a record of decision, no sooner than 30 days after the final environmental impact study is published in the federal register, approving the floating pumping plant as the chosen alternative. Ecology has to implement any applicable regulations and issue any needed permits.

A review period that could last for a year or more, and additional opportunities for public comment, will follow.

Campbell has his own questions. He and several other Kachess homeowners are ready and waiting to ask them.

“We have plans to place our objection to the Bureau before the record of decision,” Campbell said.

Revell acknowledged there is more discussion to come.

“New projects like these are not easy to accomplish,” he said. “But the status quo will not work for the future of Yakima’s economy or environment.”

Editorial note: This article has been updated to clarify that Revell said the inactive pool at Kachess contains 585,000 acre-feet of water.