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Originally published September 28, 2013 at 7:04 PM | Page modified September 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM

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Longtime foes unite over water plan for Eastern Washington

After years of water wars, Eastern Washington farmers, the Yakama Indian Nation and conservationists have teamed up to push a multibillion-dollar proposal that offers something for all of them: more water, fish passages at dams and more land protected from development. But will it fly?

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

Transforming the Yakima River Basin

See more details on the project.

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Mount Baldy ranch, KITTITAS COUNTY — When Urban Eberhart looks out over this deep, sage-brush-covered valley south of Ellensburg, he envisions a towering concrete wall stretching 3,200 feet across the expanse to hold back 50 billion gallons of water.

The Wymer Dam and Reservoir is part of a much larger, roughly $4.2 billion proposal to provide more water for fish, and farmers like Eberhart, in the drought-prone Yakima Valley over the next 30 years. The effort, if it pans out, would be the biggest thing to hit the region since the Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942.

“This is how we survive,” says Eberhart, 52, who had to truck in water during one drought to keep his fruit trees alive. “Without this, we don’t make it.”

There’s a chance Eberhart will get his wish. Groups that once fought themselves to a standstill — including farmers, big-name environmental groups and the Yakama Indian Nation — have joined together to persuade Congress and the state Legislature to help fund the projects.

The all-for-one strategy has brought unity by providing something for everybody. Environmental groups get 50,000 acres put under state protection. The tribe would get fish passages and other improvements to restore salmon runs largely wiped out by past dam construction. Farmers would get new and bigger reservoirs and a 5-mile-long tunnel to move water between lakes.

There’s also broad support among state Republican lawmakers. And Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee urges action too, arguing in part that climate change will bring more frequent and severe droughts. These projects, supporters say, would help maintain a thriving agricultural industry and revive salmon runs that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Yet, even though there’s unprecedented cooperation to see the proposal through, critics remain.

Some environmental organizations, including the Cascade chapter of the Sierra Club, oppose new water storage, including expansion of a reservoir at Bumping Lake that would inundate old-growth forest.

Others, including Democratic House Capital Budget Chairman Hans Dunshee, complain about the cost, saying the plan is bloated with expensive projects that were included to keep disparate interests on board.

The overall price of $4.2 billion is in 2012 dollars. That figure does not include financing, which alarms Dunshee even more. He wants to limit the state’s share to no more than half the cost.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, by comparison, is expected to cost about $3.1 billion.

Supporters say water users, including farmers, would pay back their share of the cost over time. But Dunshee said that’s not written down anywhere, and no one has told him that.

“If there’s no repayment plan and agreement, it’s a very sweet deal for them,” he said. “Nobody sells you a house without having a repayment plan in place.”

Norman Whittlesey, a retired professor of agricultural economics at Washington State University, says the proposal “is a bit of a hoax on the public the way it’s packaged. Everybody in the Yakima Valley is going to get something out of this, and all they have to do is get the taxpayer to pay for it.”

Where the money would flow

There was a time when the interests now pushing the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan could barely talk to each other.

“In the past we’ve been at odds, in honest-to-God shouting matches between the two sides,” said Mark Charlton, of Charlton Farms in Ellensburg, a veteran of the water wars.

Environmental groups and the tribe opposed the reservoirs because the proposals didn’t do enough to restore fisheries and protect habitat. And farmers opposed efforts to restore fisheries because they didn’t include more water for agriculture.

What led to the truce?

Money.

Or rather, the idea they each have a better shot at getting their projects funded by working together.

“There’s no doubt that if you put a bunch of people in a room and you ask them ‘what will it take for you to support this,’ that’s going to be more expensive than if you just talked to the irrigators or you just talked to the enviros,” said Jay Manning, a former state Department of Ecology director who is representing several conservation groups supporting the plan.

But, Manning said, there is nothing in the plan where “I would say, well that’s kind of fluff, you don’t really need to do that.”

For certain environmental and conservation groups, including American Rivers and the Wilderness Society, a key component was the Legislature’s decision this year to buy 50,000 acres of private land in the Teanaway River area in Eastern Washington for $100 million.

The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of the month.

The Yakama Nation, in addition to more water for river flows, would get fish passages on several dams, including the Cle Elum, Keechelus and Kachess dams, to help restore salmon and bull trout at a projected cost of more than $400 million.

And farmers, theoretically, would get enough water to survive future droughts.

The package includes installing an outlet in Lake Kachess to access more water, building the new Wymer reservoir that would use pumps to bring in water from the Yakima River, enlarging an existing reservoir at Bumping Lake, and digging a 5-mile-long tunnel — large enough to walk through — under Interstate 90 to transfer water from Lake Keechelus to Lake Kachess during high-runoff periods, all at a cost of roughly $2.5 billion.

Other projects, including habitat restoration and efforts to improve water conservation, bring the total price tag to around $4.2 billion, a figure that doesn’t count inflation or financing.

The plan aims to create an additional 590,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover an acre to a depth of one foot.

Climate: “Something is different”

Eberhart argues the region needs every drop.

The fruit and hay farmer, with a clean-shaven head and hyperkinetic personality, is one of the biggest cheerleaders for the basin plan. He’ll talk your ear off about the constant threat of drought, and how in 1994, there was a drought so severe he had to rent a truck to haul in water from a well to keep his fruit trees alive.

“It was horribly expensive. And that’s just a survivability thing,” Eberhart said, although in this case his apple and pear trees never fully recovered and he ended up removing them.

Climate change, he argues, will bring warmer weather to the mountains, and less water stored as snow. Instead it will fall as rain and simply flow downstream during the winter months — when farmers don’t need it.

“Something is occurring that is different than before. Our snowpack is not materializing and the consistency and severity of our drought years are increasing. It doesn’t matter what you call it, I call it climate change, but something is different,” he said.

Eberhart argues everything in the plan is needed to help agriculture and fish — the region’s way of life — survive.

Climate models do project the region will get less snow, said Professor Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

He agreed shrinking snowpacks are likely to lead to more droughts in the Yakima Basin. But there’s no consensus on that point. Some scientists say it’s too early to make that call.

Mote said that, in any case, spending billions to store additional water may not be the answer. He said an analysis is needed to look at climate-change projections and whether the cost of building new water storage is worth the benefit.

Economic benefits in question

A 2012 state and federal study put the economic benefits of the overall project at roughly $6 billion to more than $8 billion over the next 100 years.

However, Dunshee, D-Snohomish, questions the analysis. “It’s really pretty bad junk science,” he said.

He says the vast majority of the economic benefit described in the report — more than 80 percent on the high end — is pegged to the recovery of salmon runs.

Creating fish passages on dams, improving habitat and providing more water for stream flows are projected to bring back salmon in large numbers.

The government study used a 15-year-old survey of Washington state residents that looked at their willingness to pay for improved fisheries. They call it the “passive value” of fish.

The study extrapolated the survey results to the populations of Washington and Oregon and projected the value of recovered fisheries to be as high as $7.1 billion.

Whittlesey, the retired WSU economics professor, says that “what they are doing is using the value created by the projected fisheries to justify expenditures of other projects in the Yakima River — none of which contribute much if anything to the fisheries.”

Derek Sandison, director of the Columbia River office for the state Department of Ecology, stood by the report, saying in an email: “it represents the most rigorous evaluation of societal demand for the existence of salmon and steelhead available for any large portion of the Columbia River basin.”

Sandison also said the benefit of additional water for fisheries should not be discounted.

In testimony before the House Capital Budget Committee in February, Sandison said roughly 450,000 acre-feet of water — out of the 590,000 acre-feet added under the plan — would be available for out-of-stream uses including irrigation.

The rest would go to fish, and even more water would be added to the river flows through conservation, he said.

“You can build fish passage facilities at all the dams in the basin and construct a myriad of habitat projects, but if there isn’t sufficient flow ... there won’t be many fish benefits,” he wrote in an email.

Big hurdles remain

For now, the Yakima Basin plan is moving forward.

The Teanaway purchase is nearly complete. Work could begin on a Cle Elum Dam fish passage by the end of 2015, and on the Lake Kachess outlet in 2016 to allow access to an additional 200,000 acre-feet of water. A host of other projects will move along in the planning process.

Most are subject to state and federal funding, which is not a sure thing.

Half the upfront funding for the projects is supposed to come from the state, which is slowly emerging from a long recession. Most of the rest is supposed to come from a Congress that can’t seem to agree on anything.

Sandison said the intent is for water users to pay their share of costs for the projects, but he acknowledged there’s nothing in writing at the moment that clearly says that. It’s also not clear over what time period the repayment would occur, or whether it would include interest.

Dunshee worries the sheer scale of the effort could take money away from other areas of the state.

“This just knocks the hell out of everything else we want to do,” he said, arguing that cheaper ways to approach the problem could include better conservation of water in the Yakima Basin.

Eberhart says farmers have already done a lot of conservation and will do more. And, he points out, “You can’t do it all with conservation because when there’s no water to put into the canals, you can’t save it.”

Supporters are keeping their fingers crossed that all the strange bedfellows remain committed to the effort.

Manning predicts that if critics are successful in stopping the effort, nothing will get done.

“We can all stop each other, but we can’t move our own agenda forward,” he said. “To me, if we can’t figure out a way to do this as a society, then welcome back to the water wars for the next 30 years.”

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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