U.S. Senate committee approves state water legislation, paving way for federal funds

By:  Kate Prengaman
Source: Yakima Herald-Republic

Legislation authorizing the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan for improved water management in the region was approved Thursday by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The bill, sponsored by U.S Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would bring federal authorization and funding to the plan approved by the Washington Legislature in 2013. It includes ?$92 million for water conservation, fish recovery, and increased water supplies for agriculture and community use over the next 10 years.

“Acting now on this legislation is critical, and I think it sets a tone for how to get larger water projects done in the West,” Cantwell said at the hearing.

The bipartisan committee supported the recommendation to move the bill forward.

A similar bill has yet to be introduced in the House, but Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, is planning to meet with local leaders on Tuesday to discuss the plan, which he supports.

The bill the committee approved specifically authorizes projects considered part of the first 10-year phase of the 30-year plan developed by the state Department of Ecology and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The total cost of the first-phase projects is estimated to be about $700 million, shared by the state and federal government, and local irrigation districts. The state already has allocated more than $162 million for the plan, including the purchase of the Teanaway Community Forest.

Projects include $77 million for improvements to the Wapato Irrigation Project, $18 million to raise the Cle Elum Reservoir by ?3 feet, $240 million for fish passage at the Cle Elum and Rimrock reservoirs, and $150 million for a pumping plant that could pull additional water from the Kachess Reservoir during drought years.

The entire Integrated Plan approved by state lawmakers was estimated at about $4 billion over 30 years, including two large reservoirs that have been controversial.

On the federal level, the first phase of the plan would be authorized under an existing Water Enhancement Project for the Yakima Basin that has helped to fund water conservation work since Congress created the project in response to the 1977 drought.

The phase one bill approved Thursday contained several changes from the initial proposal Cantwell introduced in Yakima in July.

Several of the changes were made in response to criticism from some environmental groups and homeowners near proposed reservoir projects that the development of the plan thus far had not been subject to enough public scrutiny. The bill now emphasizes that each component is still subject to all standard studies, reviews and public comment processes, including looking at the impact of proposed Kachess pumping plant on area residents.

The bill has also been updated to clarify that the projects will conserve 85,000 acre feet of water and to address in more detail how the federal government can help the state develop efficient water markets, according to Cantwell’s staff.

It’s not known when the full Senate will consider the bill or how much broad support it may have.

At the hearing, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said while he didn’t want to oppose the Yakima bill, he wanted to remind the committee that lots of other regions in the West need congressional support for water projects as well.

The committee also recommended a re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Act at $10 million a year for land protection and recreational access as part of a package to protect and enhance hunting and fishing opportunities on public lands.