Yakima Basin plan threatens Tri-Cities’ water
By Charles Freeman

The Kennewick Irrigation District supports water conservation in the Yakima River basin and the vehicles that facilitate it: the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project (YRBWEP) and the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan (IP). We want to see sustainable river management that supports agriculture, fish and wildlife, recreation, and residential communities for generations to come. We support a truly integrated plan that addresses the needs of all Yakima River basin water users, not just those between Ellensburg and Prosser.

Recently, KID leadership met with the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board regarding impacts to our water supply from up basin conservation measures.

KID is a “return flow” district: our supply depends on water that returns to the river after use up basin. Yakima river water was, essentially, fully appropriated in 1945, when a court determined the federal government’s obligation to provide water to basin users. Yet, the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) was able to build KID less than a decade later due to abundant flows returning to the lower basin.

As a return flow district, KID objects to current implementation of YRBWEP and the IP. Up basin irrigation districts’ water savings come at the expense of reduced return flows in the lower Yakima River. The original YRBWEP proponents understood this: Public Law 103 434, authorizing YRBWEP, protected our water supplies and authorized electrification of Chandler Power and Pumping Plant (Chandler) to replace water supplies lost to conservation.

Electrification of Chandler is a solution to ensure supplies for our community, farms, and fish over the coming decades. Currently, Chandler uses water to pump the water diverted at Prosser Dam into KID’s main canal. With electrification, water formerly used to run the pumps could be used to supply fish, farms and homes.

The solution is simple; the politics and bureaucracy are difficult. KID has been working diligently to engage other stakeholders on these issues. However, there is little incentive for up basin irrigators to work with us when they benefit from reducing our supply.

Reclamation has the authority to settle these issues. Reclamation is statutorily and contractually obligated to ensure our water supplies are not harmed. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of leadership from Reclamation on these issues. Reclamation appears more concerned with upper basin politics than carrying out the law. Without leadership from Reclamation, these fundamental issues will be resolved by a judge.

This political and legal reality flies in the face of what you may hear about the IP being a model for the nation of collaborative river management.

As currently managed, YRBWEP and the IP pose an existential threat to our community. Water is the limiting factor to our region’s sustainability and future growth. Without it, growth stops, crops wither, and local businesses shutter.

Regarding implementation of YRBWEP and the IP, the Kennewick Irrigation District recently heard from up basin districts that we may be right on the law, but are wrong on the politics. But, they refer to up basin politics, not the politics of our community. They purport to know what’s best for the lower basin, and drive the IP accordingly.

The Tri-Cities is home to 300,000 people. Together, KID and Columbia Irrigation District serve one-third of that growing population. It’s time up-basin folks heard from the Tri-Cities.

Over the last decade, approximately $160 million of tax dollars were spent conserving water that used to supply KID. Help us make the IP work as intended, and as required by law, by ensuring that the lower river is not harmed by up basin conservation. Learn more. Ask questions. Speak up.

Charles Freeman is the manager of the Kennewick Irrigation District.