More Washington Infrastructure Projects On The Horizon – Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan

Governor Jay Inslee recently spoke in Ellensburg, Washington and emphasized the need for more infrastructure projects in the state of Washington.[i]  Speaking to a largely Eastern Washington agricultural audience, the Governor emphasized that the State’s roads “need work,” and if they do not get it soon, farmers trying to move their crops to market will definitely notice.  “I am here to report to you we are in deep, deep trouble,” Inslee said in his keynote address to the Annual Economic Outlook Conference at Central Washington University.[ii]  Inslee, citing the collapse of the I-5 bridge in Skagit County several months ago, along with cuts to bus service across the state, indicated that more drivers are now on the road.  He stressed the need for a bipartisan transportation funding package for maintenance.

One major $4.2 billion infrastructure project is looming on the horizon.  The project under consideration is to obtain more water for river flows and construct fish passages on several dams, including the Cle Elum, Keechelus, and Kachess dams, which will help restore salmon and bull trout populations.  The package includes installing an outlet at Lake Kachess to access more water, building the new Wymer Dam and Reservoir in the Yakima Ellensburg area that would use pumps to bring in water from the Yakima river, enlarging an existing reservoir at Bumping Lake, and digging a 5-mile tunnel (large enough to walk through) under I-90 to transfer water from Lake Keechelus to Lake Kachess during high-runoff periods, all at a projected cost of $2.5 billion.   The purpose is to provide more water for fish and farmers 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.  Other projects, including habitat restoration, and efforts to improve water conservation, bring the total price to around $4.2 billion, a figure that does not count inflation or financing.  By comparison, the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project cost about $3.1 billion.

Climate changes are blamed for bringing warmer weather to the mountains, causing them to store less water as snow.  If the project is not built, the water will fall as rain and simply flow downstream during the winter months when farmers do not need it.  By creating additional reservoirs during the high rainfall winter and spring months, the project would provide more water to use during the drier summer months.  In total, the plan aims to create an additional 590,000 acre feet of water (an acre foot of water is enough water to cover an acre to the depth of 1-foot).

A 2012 state and federal study put the economic benefit of the overall project at roughly $6 billion to more than $8 billion over the next 100 years.  There are a lot of different views as to the economic benefit of this project, however, it appears, for now, the project is moving forward.[iii]  Much of the economic benefit described in the various reports is pegged to the recovery of salmon runs, which remain controversial.  However, it appears that Eastern Washington farmers, the Yakama Nation, and conservatives are aligned to push this multi-billion dollar proposal through, which offers something for all of them: more water, more fish passages at dams, and more land protected from development.

[i] Andrew Garber, Seattle Times, Longtime foes unite over water plan for Eastern Washington, September 28, 2013.

[ii] Ross Courtney, Yakima Herald-Republic, Gov. Inslee: Road infrastructure woes could cost ag industry, October 30, 2013.

[iii] David Lester, Yakima Herald-Republic, Bureau of Reclamation approves $5 billion integrated water plan, July 19, 2013.

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