aquifer

So expansive and ambitious is the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Management Plan — spawning many project tributaries, so to speak — that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of the wide-ranging partnership it encompasses.

Recently, when Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, came to the Department of Ecology’s office in Union Gap for something of a victory lap after the signing of the multi-pronged public lands bill that included federal authorization for the Yakima Basin Plan, people proudly reeled off a host of initiatives moving forward.

There’s the funding to repair Wapato’s crumbling irrigation district. There’s the plan to allow the Roza Irrigation District to tap Lake Kachess reservoir water. There are the plans to improve water conservation and allocation into the Lower Valley involving senior and junior water rights holders. There’s portion set aside to study building a new dam at Bumping Lake and building an off-channel surface storage facility at Wymer Canton. Oh, and there’s no fewer than six plans for reservoir fish passages. Got to protect the bull trout and salmon.

Lost, perhaps, amid this tidal wave of region-wide efforts to increase storage during drought years and deal equitably with water allocation, was recognition for a project narrower in scope but pretty darned important to Yakima residents.

That would be improvements to the city’s aquifer, specifically, adding two additional wells to deposit water into the aquifer and withdraw it when need arises, especially during drought years. In recent years, Yakima has been part of a pilot project to determine if “banking” water in aquifers — pumping it in when the Naches River, the city’s primary water source, runs high; pumping out during high-usage periods — is a viable storage plan.

Yakima’s four wells already are operational, and the city now plans to drill two new Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells within city limits within the next few years. It is an innovative way for a municipality to store water, and much-needed, too, during these days of climate change when snowmelt off the Cascades comes more rapidly than before, straining capacity.

Water issues are always fraught with potential conflict, especially during drought years – remember the sage Wallace Stegner line, “Water is the true wealth in a dry land” – so for Yakima to cultivate its own storage system is valuable by any measure.

Why? Because tapping into these aquifers during periods of heavy flow on the Naches, and squirreling it away, would enable Yakima residents to no longer fret about not having adequate access to water in the height of summer, when need spikes. Yakima’s pilot project — Walla Walla, by the way, is the other city pegged to test the Aquifer Storage and Recovery system — may help other cities in thirsty Central Washington deal with dry summer months.

Because this method has yet to be widely adopted around the state, it’s important that the city ensure the project is managed well, its storage levels fully documented and its levels of storage and disbursement match or exceed its estimates.

Currently, the aquifer supplies Yakima with 20 percent of its water in a normal year. During drought years, such as 2015, that figure could rise significantly without the possibility of depriving water users down-Valley from their fair share or having the potential to harm native species and fish.

On the environmental front, studies have shown that the “recharging” — summoning stored water from the aquifer’s depths — actually improves conditions at nearby streams and rivers. When aquifer water is pumped from below ground, its temperature is far cooler than flowing surface water, which is advantageous to fish populations.

As David Brown, Yakima’s water and irrigation manager, told a Herald-Republic reporter, “Residents won’t see any impact, but they’ll have water all year round.”

Call the Yakima aquifer, then, one of the stealth projects benefiting from the cooperative Yakima Basin Integrative Plan. Yakimans will notice it, or not, on hot August afternoons when they turn on their faucet and see the usual full flow of available water. And, downstream, farmers and residents won’t worry their access will not be reduced to a trickle.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.