Water Wealth

by: Posted on: November 11, 2010

By Rick Glenn

The 20th century was an era of tremendous economic growth in the United States.  Horses were replaced by automobiles, oil lamps were upgraded to electric lights, and the Yakima River Basin was introduced to irrigation.  Introducing 450,000 acres of sunny, fertile ground to irrigation water increased the value of the land by a factor of at least 10.  This is still true today.  Land without water is less than $500 per acre.  Add water, and the value starts at $4,000 and may be as high as $15,000 per acre with permanent crops such as apples, cherries, and grapes.  The Yakima Basin is the state’s leader in the value of farm output, and ranks near the top nationally in the production of apples, hops, sweet cherries, and mint.

The Tax-assessed value of the real estate in the Yakima River Basin is more than $13 billion, not including the Yakama Nation (Indian) Reservation, the Yakima (military) Training Center or other state and federal lands, which compose 1.8 million acres of tax exempt real estate.  Property tax revenue from the Yakima River Basin adds to state revenues.  The annual value of Yakima county crops is more than $1 billion. If you take the irrigation water away the revenue disappears also.

Are there any water issues in the Yakima Basin that need to be addressed in the 21st Century?

3 major concerns are waiting to be addressed:  Environment (fish habitat), climate change, and storage capacity.


The 20th century saw the conversion of rivers in the Yakima Basin primarily to an irrigation system.  Dams and diversions were installed from Prosser to Cle Elum to benefit irrigation.  High water flows in the summer (caused by using the rivers to transport water from reservoirs in the upper basin to irrigation canals in the lower basin) disrupt the normal river habitat.  As salmon come upstream to spawn in the spring, summer, and early fall, they seek shallow water to lay their eggs.  When irrigation diversions end in September, streamflows drop dramatically as reservoirs begin to refill.  This shrinkage of the riverbed causes many eggs and juvenile fish to be stranded.

The summer stream flow in the lower basin (below the irrigation diversion dams) is lower than normal because so much water is diverted to irrigation.  There is inadequate water storage to allow normal streamflows in the lower basin.  Minimum streamflows are mandated at the Parker diversion dam, but this amount of flow is still considered insufficient by fish biologists.

The situation worsens as irrigators conserve more water through improved efficiency of irrigation systems.  Suppose you have a sponge on the table.  You pour 10 gallons of water on it (irrigation).  5 gallons is absorbed by the sponge (crops) and the rest runs off the table (back into the river).  Then you decide to conserve.  You now only put 6 gallons on the sponge (because of your 40% increased efficiency).  5 gallons is still absorbed by the sponge (crops), except that now only 1 gallon runs off the table (back into the river).  Conservation would be a great solution if the 4 gallons conserved were left in the river.  In reality, water rights holders or the DOE claims the conserved water.   Since there isn’t enough water to go around, the lower river now has to survive without water that used to flow back into it.  This issue remains unaddressed by the Department of Ecology and the Bureau of Reclamation even though they consider the Lower Yakima River streamflow too small and the water too warm because of the reduced flows.  Migrating salmon have no way of knowing that suitable upstream spawning areas still exist when the lower river conditions are unsuitable.

Yakima River salmon runs have decreased dramatically to less than 5% of the most conservative estimates from 100 years ago.  Federal and state legislation in the last 20 years have changed the emphasis of Washington State’s Department of Ecology and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to restoring fish populations (mostly by reducing agricultural water use through conservation and diverting the saved water back to the river).  Because of the minimal success of these efforts some environmentalists argue that the correct environmental answer is to remove all irrigation dams and diversions, as well as the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River.  There is no argument that this would make life easier for fish.  It would also mean a multi-billion dollar reduction in the region’s economy.

Climate Change

The Department of Ecology (DOE) commissioned a study on climate trends by the University of Washington.  Using that information, Jay Manning, former head of DOE, has stated that summer water supplies in the Yakima Basin will decrease as much as 50% by 2050.  Annual precipitation levels won’t change significantly as decreases in winter snowfall are replaced by rain, causing increased winter runoff while reducing summer streamflows fed by snowpack.  If that statement proves true, the agriculture industry in the Yakima Basin will be devastated.  The economic impact will be in the billions of dollars.  Water shortages occurred an average of every 5 years for the last 25 years, and researchers say the frequency will increase.  The risk to our agriculture economy is huge.

Water availability has become a worldwide concern as demand increases for this valuable commodity.  Replenishment of ground water is a related issue, demonstrated by the moratorium on new wells in the upper Kittitas County.  The fact of the matter is that legal water rights in the Yakima basin currently exceed the available supply of water.  Unless new storage is built, no new water rights should be granted.  Peter’s new well would only be robbing water from Paul.

Storage Capacity

Additional storage was promised to junior water rights holders when the irrigated land was settled.  The promise is still unmet with snowpack providing 2/3 of our summer water supply.  As a result, the Yakima River Basin has the lowest percentage of storage to usage of any Bureau of Reclamation project.  Consider the Colorado River system with more than 5 years of storage capacity.  The Yakima River basin has 4 months of storage capacity.  That was an acceptable risk fifty years ago.  The winter snowpack generally provided adequate runoff for the irrigation system to function normally.  Today the system is falling short of irrigation needs with increasing frequency, creating an unacceptable financial risk for farmers. At the same time, environmentalists argue that more water needs to be left in the river to support fish populations.

It’s the Water!

The solution in the 21st century is the same as it was in the 20th century.  More Water.  A study recently completed by the Bureau of Reclamation established the need for additional storage in the 1 million acre-foot range.  This would double total storage capacity to 8 months, which is still inadequate, considering that it would only be 13% of the Colorado River System’s capacity.  Only one proposal of the dozens studied can meet the conditions of the study.  This plan would pump surplus water from the Columbia River to supply irrigation districts in the lower Yakima Valley, utilizing an out-of-stream storage reservoir east of Moxee.  The Black Rock Reservoir would provide enough new water in the Yakima Basin to address the aforementioned concerns.  There is also tremendous potential to utilize the system as an energy storage battery so that wind energy can be more efficiently utilized.  (Electricity must be used the moment it is generated.  Wind does not always cooperate by blowing at the exact moment that power is needed).

The battery concept for Black Rock has 2 benefits:

1.  The excess power from wind can be diverted to run the pumps that fill Black Rock if that power is not needed on the power grid.  Those pumps can be turned off whenever needed so that power can be sent to the grid.  This concept is called off-peak power.

2.  Water flow could be reversed during peak power demand periods to create power by flowing water back through turbines into the Columbia River.  That same water will also generate power as it flows through turbines in Priest Rapids Dam.  The distance from Black Rock to the Columbia inhibits the efficiency of this process, but it is workable.   There is also discussion of building a reservoir at the base of Black Rock.  There would be a 600 foot change in elevation which would provide an extremely efficient “battery”.  A third option would be to build a smaller reservoir near Priest Rapids Dam.  This reservoir would be filled by the same pump/turbines that fill Black Rock.  The basic concept is to pump water uphill when excess power is available and send it back when power is needed.

Current negotiations, led by DOE and BOR, focus on increased water conservation by irrigators and habitat restoration with a maximum potential of 400,000 acre feet of new storage.  The cost is in the billions, but the improvement is only 1 additional month of storage capacity.  It cannot solve the problem.  It will ultimately require a significant reduction in irrigated acreage.  The reduction in wealth will be in billions of dollars.  Current research allows no other conclusion.

They say that “Time is Money”.  In the arid areas of the west, particularly in the Yakima River Basin, “Water is Wealth”.

One Response to “Water Wealth”

  • Lovely site! I am loving it!! Will come back again. I am taking your feeds also
    by: Andrew Pelton: Friday 17th of December 2010

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