A four-year federal study of water storage proposals in Washington's Yakima River Basin ended last week, but the Bureau of Reclamation's final action left as many questions as answers.
Reclamation officials found no cost-effective alternatives for making more water available in the drought-prone basin where farmers, fish and growing municipalities are vying for the same limited resource. Therefore, "no action" was selected as the bureau's preferred alternative.
Yet while formally concluding the $16 million study, federal water managers left the door open to future storage basin development on the Yakima River by declining to issue a formal record of decision that would have codified its conclusions.
Among the proposals considered was the Black Rock reservoir, which would store as much as 1.6 million acre-feet of water drawn from the Columbia River. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot, or about 325,850 gallons.
The bureau found the proposed Black Rock reservoir could meet the water needs of the basin, but its $7.7 billion price tag failed to pass the cost-benefit analysis test, which requires that every dollar spent net at least a dollar in benefits. In the case of Black Rock, Reclamation found the project would return 13 cents for every dollar spent to build it.
Driving up the cost were provisions to includes a fish-screened intake from the Priest Rapids Lake, a pumping plant that could lift as much as 3,500 cubic feet of water per second to the Black Rock Valley, a 600-foot-high dam and power plants.
An earlier federal report indicated that the reservoir could seep enough water to raise the water table at the nearby Hanford nuclear reservation, increasing the risk of contaminating the Columbia River with nuclear waste. However, the bureau concluded that mitigation measures could be put in place to reduce and control seepage.
Backers of the reservoir welcomed the bureau's announcement that it would not kill the project's future prospects with a final record of decision, but they criticized the government's cost-benefit calculations as short-sighted.
One of those groups, the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance, contends the reservoir's construction would provide $7.9 billion in benefits, including enhancement of irrigation, fish habitat, recreation and hydropower development.
"Black Rock is the only [alternative] that provides enough additional water to solve the water problems in the Yakima Basin through the 21st century," said Sid Morrison, the alliance's chairman and former six-term U.S. congressman from Yakima. He noted that the project also would provide multiple environmental benefits such as improved water quality, wetland restoration, improved flood control, better fish passage and more opportunity for reintroduction of historical salmon runs.
Research done by the group indicates that a minimum of 200,000 fish could return to the Yakima River if the reservoir were built, yet the bureau's economic analysis overlooked that fact, Morrison said. He called on the government to commission another study that would explore how to complete the Black Rock project under a least-cost scenario.
But Wendy Christensen, a Reclamation spokeswoman, defended the bureau's economic analysis. "For federal funds to be spent, we have to show that 1-to-1 cost-benefit ratio," she said. As for examining cheaper options to get the project built, Christensen said, "It really isn't worth the time or effort to put together a least-cost analysis," adding that all of the various proposals reviewed to date present lopsided cost-benefit ratios.
Opponents, meanwhile, are asking Reclamation to issue a formal record of decision, effectively killing the project's revival prospects.
"Without that record of decision, I think it leaves the public vulnerable to more bad decision-making," said John Osborn, president of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Spokane. "They'll put it back up on the shelf, and who knows when someone will reach up and pull it down again and dust it off?"
The center has highlighted several problems with the Black Rock proposal, including its location in the earthquake-prone Black Rock Valley, its high cost, the potential for reservoir leakage into areas below the Hanford nuclear site, and the area's lack of recreation development opportunities.
Osborn noted that projects like Black Rock also wrongly focus the government's attention on storage when the priority should be on conservation.
"The real solutions to the water problems on the Yakima lie on the other side -- that's on the demand side -- by addressing issues related to water demand through conservation, water efficiencies, water transfer and water markets," Osborn said.
But influential lawmakers, including the Yakima region's current representative in Congress, remain adamant that new storage must be included in proposals to meet the basin's future water needs.
"For decades, attempts to create more storage have ended without agreement on an answer, leading to wasted years and inactivity before the initiative can be revived," Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said in a statement. "We simply can't afford to let that happen now. I intend to keep driving toward a solution for the Yakima Basin's water needs, and that answer must include more storage."
Jerry Kelso, the Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia-Cascades Area Office manager, indicated the agency wants to work with elected officials and stakeholder groups on a plan for the basin, noting that the federal study and a pending study by the state Department of Ecology should provide a wealth of information to help resolve both water and habitat needs.
"It is time for basin interests to take this information and develop consensus conclusions on a solution to the basin's water problems," Kelso said in a news release.
Reclamation spokeswoman Christensen said the bureau hopes to convene a work group to review results from numerous Yakima Basin studies, but she added that "storage alone will not solve the problems of the basin."
The bureau also evaluated two other proposals for water storage in the basin, but it found that neither proposal would adequately address the basin's water demands or be economically justified.
Both proposals included the construction of Wymer Dam, an off-channel reservoir on Lmuma Creek with 162,500 acre-feet of active capacity. One of the proposals also incorporated a system to pump water to the dam.
A century of federal management
The federal government has operated the Yakima River Basin's water delivery system since shortly after the Reclamation Act passed in the early 1900s. The Yakima Basin Irrigation Project, which provides water for irrigators in the basin, was developed with stored water constituting less than half the water necessary to fulfill water rights in the basin.
With approximately 1 million acre-feet of water in storage and water rights authorizing 2.1 million acre-feet of water usage, 1.1 million acre-feet must be provided from snowpack in the Cascades to meet all the water rights in the basin. Over the years, the snowpack has diminished, causing a water shortage in the basin.
Work on solutions to the basin's water shortage problems began in 1979 after Congress directed Reclamation to conduct a feasibility study of the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project. Congress directed Reclamation to develop a plan that would provide supplemental water for presently irrigated lands, water for new lands within the Yakama Indian Reservation, water for increased instream flows for aquatic life, and a comprehensive plan for efficient management of basin water supplies.
Early in the study process, Reclamation officials identified fish passage problems that needed immediate attention. The finding led to congressional authorization in 1984 of a project that primarily involved rebuilding fish ladders and constructing fish screens on river diversions.
The study proceeded through the 1980s but was not fully completed, primarily because of issues and uncertainties associated with the adjudication of surface waters in the basin that began in 1978. Consequently, Congress passed new legislation in 1994 that provided for significant water conservation and acquisition activities, studies to define the long-term water needs of fish and current irrigators, improvements to the Wapato Irrigation Project and development of an interim plan for management of basin water supplies.
The Washington Department of Ecology began a separate evaluation in 2008 under the State Environmental Policy Act of solutions to the Yakima Basin's water supply problems, including consideration of habitat and fish passage needs. That study is scheduled to be released next month.
Gable is an independent energy and environmental writer in Woodland Park, Colo.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.