Ellensburg dought

An environmental organization deeply rooted in the region is working to get ahead of the curve to enhance water conservation in future drought seasons.

According to a news release from Trout Unlimited, the organization is interested in leasing state water rights from Yakima Basin water right holders as part of a multi-year effort to improve tributary streamflows in drought years.

“A key issue identified in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is the strain put on streams in the Yakima Basin when available water supply is below average,” the release said. “The result is stream flows in the Yakima River’s tributaries that are exceptionally low and cannot meet the needs of farms or fish.”

Through the leasing effort, the release said Trout Unlimited is hoping to find state water right owners willing to negotiate and enter into agreements that will pay them to divert less water from Yakima River tributaries during times drought or unseasonably low flows and leave that water instream in those tributaries.

“Trout Unlimited is specifically interested in water rights from tributaries but will consider all water rights from any portion of the Yakima Basin for this project,” the release said. “Water users must have a valid state water right and must be able to demonstrate water use within the past five years.”

Building relationships with landowners

Trout Unlimited Project Manager Justin Bezold said the project is being rolled out in conjunction with the Washington Department of Ecology, who is providing the funds for the future lease agreements. The Drought Year Leasing Pilot Program was passed by the Washington Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in March 2020. Bezold said the Legislature gives the Department of Ecology the ability to explore and evaluate potential lease agreements with farmers and water rights holders.

“From Trout Unlimited’s standpoint, the approach allows us to simplify the ability to compensate farmers for leaving water in streams during droughts,” he said. “The general approach is that we would pay an up-front fee to retain the ability to retain water rights in a water-short year, and then pay the farmer in years where we actually lease the water.”

Bezold said this concept has been discussed at different levels throughout the state in past years, but the 2020 legislation gives Trout Unlimited the ability to move ahead with the formal process. He said the new legislation capitalizes on over 20 years of flow restoration work done by Trout Unlimited and various partners. Along with the Yakima River Basin, Bezold said the drought leasing program is also being piloted in the Methow River Basin.

“Water availability for fish, farms and communities is an increasingly difficult challenge every year, especially as we face some climate uncertainty,” Bezold said. “This legislation that was passed in 2020 is an attempt to help develop creative solutions to address water scarcity, especially in drought years. We’re recognizing that the frequency of those drought years is probably going to become greater given climate change.”

Although the Department of Ecology is providing the funds for any lease agreements that are made, Bezold said water rights holders will work exclusively with Trout Unlimited to work out lease agreements. Any estimates of potential compensation amounts are unavailable, as Bezold said they will be unique to each potential lease situation.

Bezold said the definition of success may be different for those involved in the process. In Trout Unlimited’s case, he said success of the project hinges on ensuring water rights holders are compensated in a timely fashion, while keeping water instream during future drought years. In the landowner’s case, he said the definition of success will likely be unique to the area of the region they live in.

“The state is going to have a third definition of success here,” he said. “Each deal we will enter is specifically tailored to the individual landowner and their location in the basin. We are trying to work on tributaries in the Yakima River, but we’re not limiting ourselves to just tributaries. We’re interested and willing to work with all interested sellers.”

GETTING AHEAD OF THE CURVE

Water lease agreements have been available in past drought years, but Bezold said the structure of those programs is markedly different than the current pilot project. In previous years, the leasing concept was developed as a declared emergency response to drought. The current program aims to create agreements ahead of time so that all parties are already prepared when a drought arrives in the region. Under the pilot project, Bezold said water rights holders would be paid a portion of money upfront in return for the option to lease the water in future drought years. If the drought year occurs during the option period, the landowner would then be paid for the leasing of the water rights during that year.

“We’re working to streamline lease agreements so that we’re not in a rush during a drought year,” he said. “I know that’s always a challenge because of the Yakima Basin and the way we get snow sometimes. We could have major snowfall and accumulation in late February and into March that could change the amount of water we have available for agriculture and streams pretty quickly. We’re just trying to get ahead of it by hedging our bets here.”

With the pilot project ready to go, Bezold said Trout Unlimited is heavily invested in finding practical solutions in future drought years that result in a win-win situation for both agricultural producers and conservation organizations such as theirs.

“We live in the communities we work in,” he said. “We know the local resource issues, and the landowners are able to work with us as a nonprofit instead of having to work with the state. Relationships with landowners are key here, and they have to have trust and confidence in Trout Unlimited and our ability to follow through in the process.”

State water right holders interested in the leasing program are directed to contact Bezold with any questions at 509-881-5464 or justin.bezold@tu.org.

Margaux Maxwell reports for the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. She can be reached at mmaxwell@yakimaherald.com.