Partnership promising tool for enhancing water supply

By:  Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board
Source: Yakima Herald-Republic

It’s true, doing something about expanding the Yakima Valley’s water supply will come at a cost; the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan calls for 30 years of a variety of investments at a cost of $4 billion to $6 billion. But backers of the plan correctly point out that not doing something also comes at a cost — one that farmers are already paying in this drought year and one that is likely to ripple through the Valley’s economy in coming months.

That’s why a move by this state’s U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, is most welcome as a way to further the integrated plan. The entire Valley benefits from increased water supply — the integrated plan calls for conservation, new storage and fish habitat enhancements — and a promising provision includes an investment by those who would benefit most directly.

Some details came out at a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing earlier this month in Washington, D.C. The legislation to authorize the integrated plan and provide money for its first 10-year phase would enable irrigators to help finance water storage from which they would derive benefits.

Federal law at present allows private entities to fund projects that work in unison with federal projects. The new legislation would take it further by allowing the federal Bureau of Reclamation to run the pumping plant for the irrigators, and it would also make private investment more straightforward.

A public-private partnership is envisioned for one key aspect of the integrated plan, a project that would shift water from the Keechelus Reservoir near Snoqualmie Pass to the neighboring Kachess Reservoir. That move would allow the Kachess to refill faster and would aid fish habitat in the upper Yakima River; several irrigation districts have signaled an interest in the project. The bureau would conduct the project’s engineering and environmental reviews, but the participating irrigation districts would own the infrastructure and extra water; ?in this case, about 200,000 acre-feet.

One potential source of funding would be the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange, a nonprofit that helps create public-private partnerships to build infrastructure projects. It attracts capital from entities like pension funds, much as municipal bonds do now for roads.

The idea has its opponents, as does the integrated plan itself. Property owners along the Kachess Reservoir don’t want to see the lake level drop; and while some environmentalists are on board with the integrated plan, others oppose any new storage as a nonstarter. Critics also question the costs vs. the benefits, most recently citing a Washington State University study that concluded none of the economic benefits over 100 years justified the costs.

Proponents point to this drought year as one in which the region will bear the costs of a now-overallocated system; climatological data point to warmer winters with less snowpack, which raise the prospect of more drought years in the future. That the integrated plan is building infrastructure for the next century is no overstatement; many of the current reservoirs and canals in use today date back more than 100 years. With this forecast, the cost of doing nothing will only accelerate.

The integrated plan’s process has taken decades to get to this point, with federal, state, local and tribal governments on board along with irrigation interests. The proposed public-private partnership gives those who would benefit most a financial stake, and it reduces taxpayer exposure.

The partnership is also a recognition that the old days of long-term, no-interest federal loans to build water projects are long gone. The proposal recognizes fiscal, geographic and political realities. It is well worth pursuing.