by Zach Colman
OCTOBER 16, 2016 YAKIMA, WASH.—Over the past 100 years, this arid region of Central Washington has undergone a stunning transformation. Engineers and farmers have captured the annual mountain snowmelt and used it to change the sagebrush steppe into an agricultural Eden of tree fruits, mint, hay, and corn.
Rows of green crops adorn a once-parched landscape. Reservoirs funnel water to farms and turn massive turbines that spirit electricity to far-off coastal cities. And Central Washington has become an apple basket for the world.
Charlie de la Chapelle has lived the story of this water-borne agrarian bounty. His family has worked the land for four generations, and the square-jawed farmer has spent a successful career cultivating apples and pears.
But in recent years, his livelihood has been growing less reliable. First federal and state courts said farmers needed to leave more water in rivers for endangered fish to survive. Then changes in snowmelt worsened Mr. De la Chapelle’s situation. He’s noticed snowpack on nearby Mt. Adams getting lighter and his water allotment less predictable.
“The only way I can make it work is by keeping ground out of production,” he says.
Now, with its old water habits threatening livelihoods and ways of life, the area is undergoing another transformation. It is revamping how it manages one of its most precious resources – and in the process could point the way for an American West where long-standing water challenges are only growing more urgent and fractious.
In an innovative agreement, farmers have joined with environmental groups and state and federal officials to both increase water availability and restore the natural landscape. Although the plan focuses on just one section of the state, it is an agriculturally significant one – the Yakima Basin. And it’s comprehensive: The plan includes voluntary conservation programs, building new water-storage reservoirs, and adding structures to dams that would help fish seek cooler waters as they migrate upstream. The framework, in place at the state level since 2012, has begun to show promise, even though federal approval by the US Congress is still needed for full implementation.
Some people – including De la Chapelle – are skeptical the plan will work. But many water experts say the fledgling accord could be a model largely because farmers themselves have agreed to pay for investments that promise to enable their water needs to be met alongside those of city dwellers and endangered salmon.
Photo by: Alfredo Sosa. Mt. Adams looms in the background of the Yakima Basin in the Yakama Indian Reservation of Central Washington.