Water disputes throughout the West are so fraught with conflict that people cannot even agree whether the most famous one-liner about the issue — “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’” — was actually uttered by Mark Twain. (The consensus: It’s apocryphal.)
Regardless of who said it, the sentiment of that quotation is dead on. Water issues in Washington have long been a source of conflict between multiple stakeholders, so much so in Central Washington that people doubted whether the much-ballyhooed Yakima Basin Integrated Plan would ever be put in place, which it has.
The problem is that, with only so much water to divvy up, some of these stakeholders — growers, irrigation districts, environmental groups, the Yakama Nation, recreational users — will wind up with the short end of the, well, stake.
Case in point: A $252 million project to build a floating barge on Lake Kachess to pump water only during periods of documented drought addresses the concerns of growers and irrigators in the Valley who need water to sustain the agriculture industry, and it also addresses the building of fish passages to improve the habitat.
Good news all around, especially the factor that the brunt of the cost will be born by water users over the years. Good news for everyone but lakeside homeowners.
We can certainly understand the concern of the 400 or so homeowners surrounding Lake Kachess, who have a litany of worries.
They fear the water level will dip to unsustainable levels, turning Kachess into a glorified puddle more than a recreational lake. They fear that nearby wells used by homeowners will be sucked dry. They fear, too, that the aesthetic nature of the lake will be ruined by the pumping barge — an 80-foot wide, 90-foot long, 7-foot deep giant straw slurping up water and leaving behind little more than rocks and tree stumps.
Assurances have come from Department of Ecology officials and irrigation districts that “visual quality concerns” would be mitigated and that the pumping station would only be used during certified “break-the-glass emergency” drought years. With compromise, inevitably, comes winners and losers. And, in this instance, the homeowners are in firm grasp of the short end of the stake.
It’s a case of what benefits the greatest number. Based on environmental studies and ecological evaluations, this project would have a far greater positive impact for many more people throughout the Yakima and Kittitas valleys than negative impact on the several hundred homeowners, some of whom are believed to be seasonal residents.
But that doesn’t mean the residents’ concerns aren’t valid and that the project can proceed without all due diligence to determine the impact on the lake and its surrounding areas if there is an 80-foot drop in Kachess’ level.
The state must make every effort to make sure that the 107 private wells in the area do not fail and, if they do, to have a plan in place to mitigate the problem. The Department of Ecology says it has determined that only 15 of the wells would see significantly decreased groundwater levels during periods when the pumps are deployed. Homeowner questions concerning who will bear the cost of drilling deeper wells need addressing, and the DOE’s Tom Tebb has said the agency “has committed to assisting homeowners in securing potable water supplies” if the drought pumping affects them.
It is incumbent on state officials to ensure that those fears are assuaged so that residents around the lake will not suffer.
Yet, some suffering seems inevitable. We believe state and irrigation agency officials when they say that, though the “visual quality” of Kachess will be affected, the reservoir will not be drained. Indeed, even after removing 200,000 acre-feet of water for a drought emergency, Kachess still would retain 385,000 acre-feet of storage. Refill measures would be in place, though a two- to five-year time frame undoubtedly would test homeowners’ patience.
It’s been more than 100 years since Lake Kachess and nearby Lake Keechelus were converted to Reclamation reservoirs, so the fact that officials might now tap at least one of the bodies of water during drought years is not surprising. That is its purpose, after all.
This much is certain: During the yearlong review period that will follow the publishing of the final environmental study of the floating pump, homeowners will have plenty of opportunity to keep fighting.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.