As part of a long-term plan to ensure residential development can continue in unincorporated Yakima County, the county will start buying senior water rights as early as next month under a $500,000 state grant.

The grant could provide the county with enough water rights to sustain housing development over the next five years, maybe longer, said Yakima County Public Services Director Vern Redifer.

It’s no secret that water in Yakima County is overallocated. Although county and state officials have been working on a remedy for a number of years, the problem became particularly noticeable last summer when record-high temperatures coupled with drought strained crops and fish, and cut water to junior rights holders throughout the Yakima Basin.

In an effort to ensure future growth in a warming climate, the county is establishing a water utility in which senior water rights would be purchased by the county and set aside for future residential development.

During Tuesday’s business meeting, county commissioners approved an agreement with the state Department of Ecology that would allow the county to use the $500,000 grant to purchase senior water rights that would later be sold to developers.

“There’s a limited water supply and we have to be responsible for that,” Commissioner Mike Leita said. “There is no more important issue to Yakima County and its citizens than water.”

Receiving the grant ensures traction for the water utility, commissioners said.

“I think we really made some steady progress here to assure future growth in Yakima County,” Commissioner Kevin Bouchey said.

Commissioners said by being proactive, the county is avoiding what Kittitas County faced a several years ago, when water rights issues forced a moratorium on new wells.

Now, Kittitas County is embarking on a similar program of selling water rights to property owners wanting to build.

In Yakima County, historical data show that average growth over a five-year period called for an increase in water of about 66 acre-feet, Redifer said. He’s hoping to pay roughly $5,000 per acre-foot, a price that would allow the county to acquire about 100 acre-feet with the grant.

“If we were able to buy 100 acre-feet with that money, that would be great because it would give us enough for eight years instead of five years,” he said.

The county will begin contacting water rights owners next month, and is primarily interested in large water rights that predate 1905, Redifer said.

“Those are senior rights, without question,” he said. “They are adjudicated and are the most senior rights.”

There also will be some transaction costs, such has converting seasonal and irrigation rights to year-round municipal rights, Redifer said.

“We can do that, but it takes time, some work and it takes money,” he said. “Before we buy water, we want to make sure we 
know exactly what we’re buying.”

The county may advertise its interest in buying water rights, and it has talked about holding reverse auctions in which potential sellers would underbid one another, Redifer said.

The water utility will operate as an enterprise fund, meaning all money it generates will only be used to operate the utility, which will become self-sustaining once developers begin buying water rights from the county. Revenue from the sale of water rights will be used to purchase future water rights, Redifer said.

Currently, county workers plan to absorb the extra work operating the water utility without hiring additional staff, he said.

“Once we’re up and running, we might have to bring someone on to keep track of everything,” said Redifer, adding that water rights purchases and consumption will have to be regularly reported to the Department of Ecology.

“We want to make sure we build a strong foundation before we go out and spend the money.”