By Michael Garrity and Steve Malloch, American Rivers
The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is an ambitious plan to restore native fish and provide more reliable water supplies in Washington state’s Yakima River Basin. The Yakima Basin is the most productive agricultural area in Washington, and the withdrawal of water for the basin’s farms has drastically reduced Yakima River salmon populations over the last century. The Yakima Plan will increase salmon populations to hundreds of thousands and improve water management through a combination of water conservation, water markets, water storage (in both reservoirs and groundwater), habitat restoration and protection, and fish passage projects. Supported by a broad coalition of conservation groups, the Yakama Nation, irrigation districts, local governments, and state and federal agencies, the Yakima Plan won an award from the American Water Resources Association for its innovative and collaborative approach to water management. In 2013 the Yakima Plan secured the protection of the beloved Teanaway Community Forest, which includes the largest contiguous block of land acquired for conservation in Washington in 50 years.
The State of Washington’s Water Research Center, housed at Washington State University (WSU), recently released an economic analysis that individually evaluates the various components of the Yakima Plan. A 2012 integrated analysis found that the Yakima Plan has an overall positive benefit-cost ratio, but the State Legislature instructed the Research Center to take a look at various projects in isolation. The WSU report’s disaggregated approach leads it to conclude that the most worthwhile elements of the Yakima Plan are fish passage and water marketing, and that the least valuable components of the plan are water conservation, fish habitat restoration, and new water storage projects.
It is no surprise that the WSU analysis finds parts of the Yakima Plan worth doing and others not worth the price. The Yakima Plan was developed to address many needs in the Yakima River watershed, not just economic needs, and it looks ahead to climate changed conditions never before experienced. Supporters of the Plan are working to find and implement solutions to a huge set of historically divisive economic, social, and environmental challenges – decimated salmon fisheries, ESA-listed steelhead and bull trout, drought, climate change, flood management, maintaining a strong agricultural base, and building a stronger recreational economy. Compromise and balance are needed if solutions are to take root. We all must move forward together to improve the unacceptable status quo for the river and the local economy, or we won’t move forward at all.
Below is our initial take on the WSU analysis – a more technical review of the report will be undertaken by the Yakima Plan workgroup as a whole in the coming weeks.
- The WSU analysis confirms that salmon and steelhead restoration drives the benefits of the Yakima Plan, although it calculates the fisheries benefit to be roughly $1-2 billion rather than the $6-8.5 billion calculated under a previous analysis by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Department of Ecology. This decrease is in part due to reducing the per-fish value of Columbia Basin salmon in light of higher recent returns that have somewhat reduced the scarcity – and thus the value – of salmon from a Columbia Basin-wide economic perspective. Given that there is debate over whether recent Columbia Basin fish returns represent a temporary upward blip or a more durable trend, the WSU report’s decision to reduce the per-fish value based on recent returns is questionable.
- The WSU report assumed 5% annual salmon population increases for all stocks from fish passage projects at headwaters reservoirs. This is likely a vast underestimate of the rate of sockeye population growth, as these fish will be actively re-introduced to habitat above dams and reservoirs and therefore will likely grow into large populations considerably more quickly than the WSU report assumes. The report also overlooks other key economic benefits of fishery restoration such as recovering steelhead to a point where they can be considered recovered under the Endangered Species Act, preventing other species of native fish from being listed as threatened or endangered, and meeting tribal treaty and trust obligations.
- The WSU report takes greatest exception to the value of water storage projects. In the last century, water storage projects like those included in the Yakima Plan would have been built at taxpayer cost with enormous subsidies for the water users. But in the Yakima, farmers and other water users will pay for their share of these projects with their own money, and pay for them with interest. This strongly suggests that WSU’s assumption about the low value of additional water supplies is wrong. Those who will actually pay for the water supply projects are willing to put down their own money with interest instead of relying on taxpayer dollars.
- The report fails to recognize the value of water conservation and efficiency projects in the Yakima Basin, which help to extend water supplies for farms and communities and improve instream flows in critical reaches of the mainstem Yakima and Naches rivers as well as on tributaries like Manastash Creek. It seems that the inherently “integrated” benefits of conservation, efficiency, and better water management were just too difficult for WSU to calculate using an approach that focused on getting more water out of the river in times of drought.
- The WSU report should provide additional momentum to the water marketing element of the Yakima Plan by encouraging more water trading within and between irrigation districts and municipalities. But we believe the study overstates this element’s benefits by making some errors about both the amount of water that could legally be transferred as well as the willingness of water users and communities to change their behavior to the extent proposed in the study, especially in a manner that is also compatible with fish recovery.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the WSU report does not acknowledge the context in which the Yakima Plan is being implemented, ignoring phasing and decision points during the project’s 30+ year timeline. The Yakima Plan’s initial ten-year development phase provides major fishery and environmental benefits, and prioritizes the water supply projects that WSU identified as the cheapest and most cost-effective. Water users will purchase the share of the projects that benefit them, with most of their investment going toward the Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant, which the WSU report says is cost effective as a stand-alone project under more pessimistic (and unfortunately more likely) climate change assumptions. This project would pump more water out of an existing reservoir in drought years, pending environmental review. No new dams will built be under the Yakima Plan in the next ten years, and new dam construction will only be considered after expanded water conservation and water markets have been implemented and analyses of climate change and water demand have been refreshed.
The path forward represented by the Yakima Plan remains the most viable and realistic way to meet the needs of fish, farms, and communities in the Yakima Basin. The phased approach that has been adopted for the Plan’s implementation will allow us to adapt to changing conditions and new information. That new information may include some of the points raised by the WSU report, but corrected to account for the report’s many flawed assumptions.