Cantwell Secures Senate Passage of Yakima Basin Water Legislation

Senator Cantwell’s bill moves forward a comprehensive plan to restore historic salmon runs and support drought resiliency throughout the Yakima River Basin

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the former Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, secured the passage of the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act, which authorizes an integrated and collaborative approach to addressing water challenges in the Yakima Valley. This bill is a model for water management in the 21st century, particularly as communities throughout the West are impacted by drought and climate change. 

“Water issues are not going to go away,” Cantwell said. “We need to give communities across the West the tools to deal with the changing climate and the impacts of less and less water.” 

The Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act addresses long-standing water challenges in the Yakima River Basin, which is one of the West’s most productive agricultural regions and once was one of the nation’s most productive salmon fisheries. This bill authorized an integrated approach to balancing the Tribal, environmental, and agricultural needs in the basin during times of drought. This watershed approach is achieved through water conservation, ecosystem restoration, and drought relief measures in order to bring water security for farmers, families, and fish for years to come.

Specifically, the bill will:

  • Restore ecosystems and fisheries with fish passage and habitat restoration projects, enabling the restoration of the largest sock-eye salmon run in the United States.
  • Ensure that communities have access to water by authorizing federal partnerships for groundwater storage projects and facilitating water marketing and transfers to move water to where it is needed most.
  • Help rehabilitate and repair the Wapato Irrigation Project by providing $75 million in funding and allowing the Bureau of Reclamation to contribute funds to the project.
  • Extend water supplies for farmers in times of drought though conservation of more than 250,000 acre feet of water, and through improvements on existing infrastructure.

“We’re not going to choose one aspect of the environment over another. We are going to look to smart, holistic, cost-effective ways to preserve more water across our state and country,” Cantwell said. “Passing this bill represents important new tools to fight our water challenges and to move forward in a way that I think will prove to be an example of what we should be doing in other parts of the United States.”

Water is critical to the economic future of the Yakima Basin. A 2017 report by ECONorthwest found that more than 96,000 jobs throughout the basin depend on water, including agriculture production and processing, which represents 40% of the basin’s employment. Total economic output from water-dependent businesses in the basin is more than $13 billion.

Drought and growing demands on water have led to lawsuits and environmental degradation in the Yakima Basin. As in much of the West, the basin has faced record drought, record-breaking lows in snowpack, high heat, catastrophic wildfires, fish kills, and restrictions on water use. The ECONorthwest report also notes that droughts will become more frequent in the 2020s, putting at risk the Yakima Basin’s $2.5 billion agricultural industry and decades of investments in salmon recovery.

Cantwell introduced the legislation in July of 2015 in coordination with a number of local stakeholders including conservation, recreation, agricultural, and municipal leaders, as well as the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. The bill passed the Senate as part of her 2016 energy bill, but was stalled in the House of Representatives.

“It is exciting to see Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Yakima water enhancement bill move forward in support of one of our most important watersheds in Washington state,” said Tom Tebb, director of the Office of Columbia River with the Washington Department of Ecology. “This act is essential as we build on the success we’ve already achieved in the Yakima Basin to assure water security in times of drought and to prepare for climate change.”

“Sen. Cantwell has long been ahead of the curve in recognizing the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan as a model for 21st Century water management and ecosystem restoration. The Yakima bill embodies the kind of effective collaboration that will be needed to outpace threats from climate change,” said Wendy McDermott, Puget Sound-Columbia Basin Director for American Rivers.

"Thanks to the hard work of Senators Cantwell and Murray, the US Senate passed legislation authorizing the first phase of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Plan tonight. This Plan will help assure the future water supplies for the irrigators in the Kittitas Reclamation District and a very diverse and broad coalition of interest groups in the Yakima Basin,” Urban Eberhart, Manager of the Kittitas Reclamation District. “We also appreciate the efforts of Representatives Newhouse and Reichert in support of the Yakima Plan and look forward to its passage in the House of Representatives.”

The bill passed the Senate as part of a broader public lands package. The House of Representatives is expected to quickly vote on and pass the legislation. 

  • A one-pager with more information on the Senate’s public lands package is available HERE.