skip to Main Content

On the evening of October 1, 2016, Professor Emeritus Ken Hammond spoke at Bumping Lake for the 5th annual campout hosted by Sierra Club and Friends of Bumping Lake.  His comments are below.  (Professor Ken Hammond CV)

Water conflicts – Seeking solutions in the Yakima Basin

Ken Hammond at Maykut cabin October 2 2016 by Karl Forsgaard
Ken Hammond, Professor Emeritus and Yakima irrigator, gave the keynote address at the 5th annual campout at Bumping Lake, October 2016, hosted by Friends of Bumping Lake and Sierra Club. Prof. Hammond’s presentation appears here. (Karl Forsgaard photo)

Click to view Dr. Hammond’s Yakima Water Solutions handout

It is generally agreed that people have problems with water in the Yakima River Basin. Issues relate to both surface and ground water, and range from water quantity and timing of runoff, to water quality, mutually exclusive use preferences, the legal structure, and the local economy. Still, amazingly, one way or another, and in spite of an awkward allocation and management structure, fresh water is adequate most of the time.

The option to rewind and edit history to avoid the difficult position where we now find ourselves is not available. Instead, we must ask: “How do we proceed from this point?” It is important to know how we reached this point, not to lay blame, but to assess how (or if), on a timely bases we can change our operating methods enough to avoid wasting more time and money and/or creation of more problems.

WE BEGIN WITH TODAY. Some time ago, a TV Public Service line was designed to catch the attention of people who had money troubles from credit abuse. Even if not unvaryingly accurate, it may be useful here.

It’s never too late to get it right.

In brief: “You can borrow your way into a difficult position. You cannot borrow your way out of debt.” Similarly, past responses to water issues are no longer is appropriate even if, in some manner, they are possible. There is wisdom in a bumper sticker observed on a car in Oregon.

We Don’t Need a Fountain of Youth.  We Need a Fountain of Smarts.

It’s time to shift from questionable pattern of total domination of natural systems for short-term gain to more prudent style of cooperation with the systems for long-term sustainability.

Technology is not going to save us. Do not misunderstand me. I am not at all interested in giving up technology. I don’t want to go back to the “good old days” unless I can take my dentist and all of his tools with me. In fact, we have amazing technological know-how, but too little know-whether. We are also aware that technology is mostly driven by the consumption of finite fossil fuel resources with unexpected, and often unhappy, associated effects.

Give credit where credit is due. It is easy to hammer on gutless and witless politicians. They continue to supply a distressing number of opportunities to point out what is done is mostly for political expedience and what needs to happen does not happen because it is politically risky. Politicians almost always wish to play in a positive sum game with a greater supply to distribute in the short term. They almost never want to manage demand to address a problem for the long term. Here, for one exception to that general rule, I tip my hat to the late George Brown Jr., Chairman of the U.S. House Science Committee.

There has never in human history been a long-term technological fix; there have merely been bridges to the next level of stress and crisis. We will only change this progression when we understand our problems are those of human or cultural behavior, not inadequate machines.

His is a call to change beliefs that work against a truly sustainable future. The change will require us to assume more personal responsibility for the collective welfare and maintenance of the planet than our culture tends to encourage. Technological domination and control of natural systems is not the answer. There will be some wrenching changes or we will fail. At this point we are well along the road to failure.

Knowledge is power. Biophysical conditions influence people/water issues. Functions of the local biophysical system and the connections to water problems are not widely understood. Global connections are even more vague among the general population, although one aspect — global warming — is belatedly gaining attention.

Limits are pervasive in the natural world. The fresh water supply is physically limited. In the modern human centered world, economic and political limits also apply to water. Water limits are further complicated by natural seasonal, annual, periodic and/or cyclic variability. Thus, in some contrast to popular opinion as reflected in the daily news on weather and water availability, what you get precisely defines “NORMAL” because variability is perhaps the one thing that is normal about weather. Every year is different, and every year is normal. Floods and droughts are “normal” natural events.

For perspective, it is worth pointing out there are no water supply surpluses from floods or water rationing from droughts in hydrologic systems unmanaged by people. Every living thing that persists any place is adapted to the variable water regime. Objectively, it follows that our water problems and losses do not originate with variability in the water supply. Most flood losses are caused when people place something of value in a river channel. Though rarely occupied by flowing water, the flood plain is an integral and valuable part of the river channel. Likewise, the basic cause of every so-called water supply “SHORTAGE” is untimely or excessive human demand. These are textbook examples of our widespread failure or refusal to even acknowledge, much less adjust to reality. Part of the problem is as a society we simply do not respect limits. We make it sort of heroic to treat limits as mere bumps in the road: challenges to be overcome.

As noted, the natural system places ultimate physical limits on SUPPLY. The other side of the resource equation is DEMAND, a product of total human population times the amount required to support each individual. DEMAND can be satisfied indefinitely when limited to income expand without limit only in computers. It follows that physical growth without end is impossible. Assuredly, human population growth on Earth will end. As yet, we just don’t know what the planetary conditions will be at the end. Humanity will either change to deliberately achieve sustainable conditions at some comfortable level or, by circumstance, be forced to change – probably catastrophically.

A complex road got us to this point. It was an evolutionary advantage for species persistence to have a short-term point of view. There is no benefit in a long-term view if you don’t survive the next day or year. Also, persistence was aided by a selfish focus on personal and tribal survival.   Also, we are opportunistic feeders, wary of strangers, and ruthless in our treatment of competitors – wolves, Neanderthals, whatever. As a tribe, we have learned to subscribe to certain beliefs and to support our ensuing actions with convenient myths. For example, people who follow any of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) believe our kind occupies a dominant position on the planet. For support, as one example, we have God’s words to Noah as found in Genesis 9:2 that give to humanity, without exception, ownership of all non-human animal life.

The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the Earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered.

In contrast, and more natural for affirmative religions, Aldo Leopold, articulated “A Land Ethic” (Sand County Almanac (1949) that urges greater tolerance. He wrote:

In short, A LAND ETHIC changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

We could use our brain to help us unlearn the belief of domination, but it is a hard sell.   A strong belief in our superiority could have been the model for Sir Francis Bacon when, about 1625, he wrote a still relevant line.

People believe what they prefer to be true.

For most of history, humanity lived by hunting, gathering and scavenging. A series of historical accidents led to agriculture being at the core of the food supply, and forever changed our history. More recently, a complex of beliefs and social objectives led to control of the vast majority of fresh water in the American West by irrigation agriculture. Some say: “It was meant to be.” I say: “It did not have to happen that way and changes are needed.” Actually, agriculture is too new to know if it will be a viable survival option far into the future. If it must remain dependent on fossil fuels, it must fail.

There are doubts about the future. Jared Diamond created a major stir in 1987 when he published a 6-page article titled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” That mistake was agriculture, and he makes an interesting case to support the notion that hunter-gatherers of today enjoy a sustainable lifestyle that, in many ways, is superior to that of people who survive by agriculture.

His notion does not mean that hunter-gatherers are environmentally benign. Paul Martin caused a stir when he published Twilight of the Mammoths (2005). However unpopular his notion is with Native Americans, Martin makes the case that the mass extinction of mega-fauna in North America was directly related to the influx of skilled hunters.

With little fanfare, Vernon Carter and Tom Dale produced Topsoil & Civilization (1955). This cautionary work concludes that with only a few exceptions, civilized man was never able to continue a progressive civilization in one locality for more than 30 to 70 generations. In most cases the more brilliant the civilization, the shorter its existence. Decline is never from just one cause, but seems certain when people try to dominate, rather than maintain their renewable resources – forests, grasslands, wildlife and, most prominently, soil. When we press the limits, decline and failure are the rule, and we do continue to press against limits.

As a follow-up to her Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (1992), Sandra Postel wrote Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (1999). She looked generally at 6,000 years of irrigation agriculture history and closely at the most recent 200 years of capital intensive, energy intensive irrigation. She concludes:

It is not only a young experiment but one of uncertain outcome. The overriding lesson from history is that most irrigation-based civilizations fail. . . . The question is: Will ours be any different?

The world is littered with irrigation projects that have failed for various reasons. Irrigation systems require a continuous commitment of time, talent and money. Conditions and priorities do change. We already carry a huge burden for infrastructure maintenance, and no sign of abatement. We do choose among the options. The resources for irrigation upkeep can become unavailable.

Craig Dilworth caused barely a ripple when he published Too Smart for our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind (2010). To give you a clue on his conclusions, the next to last chapter is titled: “. . . and too dumb to change.”

He noted an even larger mistake also related to agriculture. Specifically, agriculture allowed some human groups to produce surplus food.   Then, almost without exception, they expanded demand enough to turn that surplus supply into a necessity. The urge to press on the limits may be caused by a character weakness, or even an evolutionary flaw. Our brain has the capacity to imagine and plan for change, but we didn’t. We redoubled our efforts and energy expenditures, so that, along with advances in technology and further encroachment on non-human aspects of the natural world, we did it all over again, and again. Simple arithmetic conclusively demonstrates it is impossible for human population growth to continue for long. Today the human population is about 7.4 billion and growing at 1.13% per year. Everyone should know that, at that rate the doubling time is just under 62 years. People alive today could still be alive when the total surpasses 15 billion people.

Should we be worried? A pattern of human action that defies the reality of limits should sound very familiar. It directly relates to the dominant, supply-side water management style in the Yakima River Basin. We greatly admire technological solutions that appear to increase our security through more domination of natural systems.

The Federal government subsidizes arid land irrigation in the American West. Yakima R. water demand is, far and away, dominated by diversion, use and consumption for irrigation agriculture. Multiple factors influence irrigation water demand and use, but it is fair to say the year-to-year demand for irrigation water is fairly constant and we have little practice at making graceful adjustments to normal supply variability. For additional perspective, we need to look back once more.

Today, all of the social objectives that persuaded Congress to provide massive subsidies to support irrigation agriculture have little or no relevance. Still, the subsidies continue and grow with essentially no successful effort to change. President Jimmy Carter tried to do something rational about it when, for good reasons, he asked for Congress to de-authorize, previously authorized but unfunded water projects. He got hammered.

For just a moment, in the late 1990s, I was almost optimistic that a corner was about to be turned in Federal water policy. I was asked to review the draft “Report of the Western Water Policy Review Commission.” Among all the federal studies of water in America, I judge it to be the best. In spite of some shortcomings, it is courageously forward looking and contains solid suggestions for change. It was published in 1998 as Water in the West: The Challenge for the Next Century. Unfortunately, it was promptly shelved when George W. Bush was elected President of the United States.

Dividing up western water. Within the contorted maze of deep roots and widely spread branches that have produced our economic and social systems, we can find the origins of our over-appropriated water supply. On July 26, 1866, Congress adopted a law that helped produce a confused water management pattern in the West. They left irrigation development “to local customs, laws, and decisions of courts”. As Golze lamented some 55 years ago, the “Federal Government thereby surrendered any control it might have had over the use of the waters of non-navigable streams of the 17 Western States for irrigation. It provided that all irrigation must be carried on under state laws.”

In their zeal for settlement and development, for growth and progress in the short term, States granted water rights based on skimpy flow records and very little appreciation for the values of natural streams or, specifically in our case, of salmon. They granted rights to use water that did not exist some or much of the time. Extraction was the primary requirement for perfecting an appropriation water right. In my opinion, appropriation water law is a 10-ton anchor on any attempt to address water problems. It deserves to be challenged at every opportunity.

Thus, in significant measure the State of Washington is responsible for the over-appropriated water mess in the Yakima Basin. State water law and management expertise varies widely, but that is not the worst of it. Local planning for local resources is very popular and is common practice. There is little evidence that state or local control is capable of producing an optimum and integrated resource allocation system. Federal bureaucracies are not that good at it either.

In the desperation of the Great Depression of the 1930s, we made a notable effort with the establishment of the TVA, a basin-wide public corporation with very broad authority for bettering conditions for the general populace. All other federal resource managers were removed from the area. As you might imagine, that move got the attention of every Federal bureaucracy. The specter of a Basin Authority loomed over the Columbia and Missouri River basins up until the election of Eisenhower in 1952. For political reasons, the TVA management model was never duplicated elsewhere in the U.S.   It is a long story, but eventually, even the TVA largely succumbed to politics, the temptation of bureaucratic aggrandizement, and cash flow.   It focused on power production and sale.

Local resource planning does not focus on the greater “Public Interest.” Decades ago, based on abundant case studies, I concluded it was highly unlikely that any local planning effort for local resources could produce anything other than a narrowly focused plan with a short-term point of view and based on greed. People with the most to gain in the near term — politically, bureaucratically, or economically – systematically capture the planning processes and guide the outcomes to serve their private interests without regard to the greater public interest.

It may be too much to ask for a local plan to be driven by pursuit of “the public interest” in any manner at all. It would be stunning if a plan fit the definition as phrased by Walter Lippmann (1955 The Public Philosophy).

The public interest may be presumed to be what [people] would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently.

The public interest surely is better served by resource plans designed to minimize economic and environmental costs, focus on the long term and take all stakeholders into account.

The local planning emphasis is on local impacts but, for a broader perspective on that, we need to look at the Pacific Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the federally sponsored Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Program to know that public concern for local water management extends far beyond the physical confines of the Yakima Basin. Local residents commonly resent Federal influence on local water use and allocation. In contrast, federal monetary support is built into virtually every local water plan or project. It is the old, “Just send money and stay away” attitude.

Local planners typically identify every water demand/supply imbalance as a problem to be solved by projects that increase control over the supply. And, it is best if someone else pays the costs for that additional water control. For attracting public funds, this approach has been stunningly successful in the United States. However beneficial, any focus on demand is resisted when it requires scrutiny of past practices, crop selection, and existing water allocation. What now exists has worked very well for many water users and change is not welcomed.

Yakima River water planners need a better grip on reality. The context has changed with time. Early development was based on expansion. In a sense, there still was more water to be extracted. Now, the basin is mature. The water is over allocated. Farmland is being converted to development. Significant expansion of irrigated acreage is impractical. Social priorities have changed to place higher values on fish, wildlife and environmental amenities. For practical purposes every social welfare and political reason that led the federal government to subsidize arid land irrigation has vanished. And, with human induced global warming, future supply limits are likely to become more variable. It is time to plan for reallocation of water that now exists and prepare to more gracefully adjust to natural supply variations. This requires an almost single-minded policy emphasis on water conservation, marketing and transfer.

Local planning in the Yakima River Basin almost broke the mold. The privately funded Yakima River Watershed Council (1993-1997) made a promising beginning for planning grounded on the reality of limits. I begin to imagine I could alter my dour conclusion about the deficiencies of local planning. I was saved from that when the Watershed Council was politically outmaneuvered and destroyed by the usual suspects. In consequence, water planning basically returned to, or remained with, major water users, County Commissioners, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the State Department of Ecology. A Work Group was selected to devise an action plan to “fix” the mismatch between supply and demand, mostly by increasing the supply. Making water available where we want it, when we want it and in amounts we demand seems obvious, but defies physical and economic reality. A supply increase nearly always means exerting greater control over the hydrography. To encourage and guide those actions, we now have the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan (IP).

The IP fish enhancement efforts are long overdue. They promise ecosystem gains and are “ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE” as well. A reasoned argument can be made they should have been done independently of the IP (See Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake case study below) where the expenditures emphasis is on supply enhancement projects that are not “economically feasible” and promise environmental losses as well. This is not to say there are no problems with irrigation water supply. Unfortunately, the plan did not include the most promising and least cost options for obtaining a better balance between supply and demand. The contention that all the plan proposals are so intimately connected as to be only one project is pure fiction. There is no technical interdependency tying most fish enhancement projects with new storage. The connection is more political in that the positive returns from fish makes the storage projects with very low B/C ratios look a little less negative. In that light, they are able to attract public subsidies and become what is known as “FINANCIALLY FEASIBLE”.

“ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE” means an objective evaluation of a properly discounted stream of benefits and costs suggests there is a reasonable expectation of making a profit. It offers an opportunity that would tempt a prudent individual to invest personal wealth.

“FINANCIALLY FEASIBLE” means, for whatever reasons and at whatever cost, someone will supply the funds to build and/or operate the project. The project may have no positive (or have negative) economic benefits. Rational individuals would not invest personal wealth in it.

In my book, the limited scope of multiple purposes in the IP does not provide even a fig leaf to allow it to be deemed “integrated. It appears more likely the word “integrated” was appropriated only to cast the plan in a politically favorable light, and does not accurately describe the IP. No serious attention is given to high water flows and, though water touches everything, the plan is only loosely or not at all integrated with planning for a long list of related land and water uses.

Specific criteria for project selection are not obvious in the IP. Criteria could include: choosing projects that: a) have a favorable Benefit/Cost ratio; b) preserve future options to allow adjustment to change; c) have the lowest costs per acre foot of water delivered when and where needed; d) have the lowest environmental costs; e) require the smallest public subsidies; and f) can deliver benefits in the near term and over the longer term. Other reasonable do exist.

The internal logic of the IP is open to question. For example, climate change is one of the reasons offered for more storage. A significant share of warming is caused by a combination of combustion of fossil fuels adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and forest reduction reducing the ability of the planet to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The High Bumping Lake storage project includes the destruction of some 1,000 acres of old-growth forest that sequesters vast amounts of carbon for long periods of time. As one more example, the IP purports to be concerned with reintroducing Sockeye salmon into the upper basin lakes. There is also a proposal to pipe water from Lake Keechelus into Lake Kachess. It is reasonable to believe the salmon will continue to be pulled upstream by a memory of their natal water. Upriver salmon bound for Lake Keechelus well could be attracted into Lake Kachess and reach the outfall of the K-K pipeline. Prior to any construction, there should be studies to indicate what happens next. Is it the end of the line? Is this a violation of NEPA or the Endangered Species Act?

The IP does not make clear how, or if the IP can be agreeably changed. If that is not possible, legal decisions might induce change. The several recommendations below might help make a case for change.

RECOMMENDATION #l. Formally organize to provide a single voice for taking positions or actions related to the IP. You might adopt the model of the “Western Watersheds Project” in Idaho. It started modestly with an annoyed Jon Marvel and has grown into a force to be reckoned with. They have a history of successfully suing the Federal government over grazing land issues.

RECOMMENDATION #2. The IP would benefit from a clear, accurate, objective problem definition as a point of reference for problem resolution. The IP appears to be grounded on the narrow, popular assumption that the water supply is somehow inadequate. There is “too little snow”, “too little runoff”, or “too little control” over the runoff. That framework drives the solutions considered toward supply enhancement. A more useful definition can be devised. Here is one suggestion.

With current practices, institutions, economics, and physical conditions in the Yakima River Basin, there are periods of time when water demand and water supply are not in balance.

This problem definition is phrased in neutral language and more nearly congruent with reality. It identifies both sides of the water balance equation – Supply and Demand. Either side is equally available for change to cope with problems of imbalance, whether flood or drought.

On a co-equal basis, it identifies four specific aspects of our condition – current practices, institutions, economics, and physical conditions. Each of these has multiple components that might be amenable to change. It does not pretend to specify which should be targeted. It is open all the possible solutions and does not favor or exclude any strategy, program or project. That stance opens up the broad array of possible, and more economical actions to better manage demand.

RECOMMENDATION #3. Request a detailed report of both the process and numbers used by the Work Group to calculate the magnitude of the water deficit. Open records laws should be helpful. The process and conclusions may be open to legal challenge. A defensible “need” for additional water in low flow years requires rather precise numbers for both “supply” and “demand.”   Either or both supply and demand might be altered to balance the equation. Even so, such numbers may not be the best approach to resolve issues. “Need” is different from “demand” and fundamentally more important. Need is what you can scarcely do without, while demand is what is taken at a given time at a given price.

A sum of all water rights granted is not a reasonable measure of demand. The rights were never precise and water application technology has changed dramatically. The information base has been enlarged and made more searchable over the past century. As noted above, social priorities have changed too, and especially in the most recent 50 years.

The total of all water extracted from all sources may be a pretty good measure of demand but as noted above, almost certainly does not measure water need. One does not get very far into Economics to encounter a lesson on the relationship between price and demand. Underpriced goods tend to be excessively demanded. Irrigation water is essentially free and conveyance systems often heavily subsidized. Water demand is elastic. At higher prices, demand drops. At a price that approached the cost of service, much less water would be demanded. Further, in a “use it or lose it” environment, there is a tendency for water rights holders to extract the maximum amount allowed to make relinquishment much less likely. More than once I noticed an increase in return flows during years of water rationing. Needed or not, it seems, the water was extracted so it would not be obvious it was not needed. There is a great need to get a better handle on such numbers and procedures.

RECOMMENDATION #4. Seek funding to remap all land within irrigation districts. It should specifically not be for the purpose of expanding the boundaries of irrigated land. That just makes the problem larger in low flow years. The need to adjust the database for irrigable land is directly related to Recommendation #3. New maps should identify irrigable land, irrigated land and land with legal irrigation water rights.

The remapping process can cut both ways. Surface irrigation was about the only application method available at the turn of the twentieth century. Some sandy or gravelly land was then considered not irrigable. It now is irrigable with pivot systems or other low-pressure overhead pipelines. Contrarily, some land then granted irrigation water rights is no longer available. It is in rights-of-way for freeways, highways, and other roads.   It is buried under reservoirs, businesses, parking lots, houses, barns, driveways, and soon (perhaps) solar farms. We don’t water many freeways or parking lots these days. Because water use rights are granted for a specific parcel of land, those rights are no longer appropriate and should be relinquished. The total may not be great, but it is much greater than zero and works to favorably modify both sides of the equation. Demand for water will drop if irrigable land is reduced and transfer of those rights allows the available water supply to rise. Either eventuality changes the magnitude of the problem.

Further, the same new technology that allows porous land to be irrigated allows a crop to be grown with lower total water. All land served by such systems should be identified and the map constantly updated. Public pressure based on new and better information is a tool. Perhaps the Federal Government would supply funds to improve the database.

RECOMMENDATION #5. Become very knowledgeable on the concept of “Public Trust.” It just might be that all water rights should be reevaluated and adjusted in light of changed conditions. Changes in water rights are vigorously, if not violently, resisted, but change is not without precedent. On this point, the classic case is the so-called “Mono Lake Decision.” More formally, it is National Audubon Society et al v. (ultimately) Department of Water and Power of the City of Los Angeles et al. The California Supreme Court rendered its decision in early 1983.

Decades earlier, the city of Los Angeles was granted legal rights to capture nearly all of the freshwater from streams that flowed into Mono Lake. Mono Lake is saline, supports a large population of brine shrimp and is a major stopover for Phalaropes, Grebes and other migratory waterfowl. The greatly reduced inflow caused the lake level to drop dramatically. Land bridges formed to nesting islands formerly safe from predators. Concerned with the obvious threat to birds and loss of habitat, the Audubon Society sued and ultimately won in the Supreme Court of California. The Supreme Court decision stressed the obligation of the State to protect the “Public Trust” and, as they expanded upon their decision to restrain Los Angeles from further draining Mono Lake they stated [T]he State is not confined by past allocation decisions that may be incorrect in light of current knowledge or inconsistent with current needs” where alternatives exist. This need and ability of the State to reallocate water rights was further clarified with six words that caused some holders of water rights to shudder. “No vested rights bar such reconsideration.”

RECOMMENDATION #6. Respond to the ongoing, $250,000 study of statewide water issues.

The September 21, Yakima Herald Republic announced meetings to be held in Yakima on Thursday, Sept. 23, to “focus on water issues.” Their purpose, according to Senator Jim Honeyford, is to understand the “economic consequences of investing – or not investing – in water infrastructure and fisheries habitat.” He goes on to say “We are trying to find out the true anticipated costs for storm water, flood control, water supply and fisheries” projects around the state. They focus on “systems that deliver irrigation [water] to farms, prevent floods, and shunt storm water off city streets” because they are “key parts of the state’s economy.” The article further notes that, unlike transportation infrastructure, there is no dedicated funding plan for such systems. Honeyford is then quoted as saying the study findings “will be very useful in designing the revenue to fund the projects.” There you have it. The question is who pays?

This study appears to be a political gambit designed to somehow devise a rationale to justify a state commitment to systematically pour more funds into water projects. As with tying economically feasible fisheries projects to unfeasible irrigation projects in the IP to make them less obviously unwise, this study bundles the politically appealing control of urban flood water and the emotionally appealing (however misguided), flood prevention, with economically infeasible irrigation water supply projects. On an equal basis, all of them are tied to the general economy. It isone more instance in a long history where arid land irrigation interests work for subsidies that privative the benefits and socialize the costs.

I won’t deal much here with our historic response to floods. I have studied the history of every Federal, flood related program. My conclusion is that all of them tend to increase losses over the long term. Some solace can be taken from the fact that this truth is being more widely accepted and a beginning has been made to dismantle about seven generations of “good works” that were designed, and failed to control floods. Setting back dikes along the Yakima River is one example.

RECOMMENDATION #7. Be proactive with suggestions for possible sources for state funding for water projects. The dedicated fund for transportation comes from user fuel taxes. I suggest a “User Pays” system for funding irrigation water projects. Serious consideration should be given to per acre-foot taxes on all irrigation water rights, water extractions, and water applications.

Every water right in the state could be taxed based on its size. The rate might be $1 or more per acre-foot. All water extractions should be taxed on a per acre-foot basis. That rate, too, might be $1 or more. Such annual taxes might encourage water conservation and transfer.

All water delivered to users should also be metered and taxed. This tax might encourage adoption of more conservation strategies. On a temporary or permanent basis, the saved water could be transferred to willing buyers.

A “user-pays” funding scheme would be favorable to both sides of the resource equation. It increases available water and decreases demand, to reduce the magnitude (whatever the number is) of the water deficit.

Of course, any suggestion to tax water and water use will encounter strong objections. Perhaps an “Initiative to the People” would have a better chance of being adopted. It would pass if favored by urban voters.

RECOMMENDATION #8. Find an influential member of Congress who will request a complete audit of YRBWEP by the General Accountability Office. Before the Work Group that produced the IP existed, there was the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project. It was designed to help pay for irrigation district water conservation plans. Some were completed. Some funds could share costs for conservation activities. A share of the conserved water was to be reallocated to instream flows or possibly other uses. Conservation has long been downplayed because of the requirement to share saved water and, as noted in the State of Washington Water Research Center B/C. analysis of the IP. The more successful water conservation, marketing, and transfer projects are, the less the justification for additional water storage.

The GAO study should identify Congressional Intent and stated purposes for the law. How much money has been appropriated to support it over time? How and where has the money been spent? Do the expenditures fully comply with the law? In addition to money for water conservation plans, how much money has been spent to implement conservation? What fraction of the total project costs was public money? How much and what percentage of the conserved water has been transferred from an irrigation district to instream flows, the Yakima River Water Trust or other uses?

RECOMMENDATION #9. Pressure the Washington State Legislature to fund a study by the Washington Water Research Center to calculate for each proposed project, and for several alternatives not proposed in the IP, numbers that show the cost to acquire and deliver where needed and when needed, an acre-foot of water. Such numbers allow meaningful comparisons among proposals.

Major construction projects will nearly always be at a disadvantage when compared to approaches that require little or no new construction. On that basis, rotation fallow, and even permanent fallow, would show up favorably. The basic reason is construction costs are large, come early and interest costs accumulate, while the benefits come later – much later. Further, much or all of the water in a reservoir is not needed every year, or even for several consecutive years, while the capital construction liabilities, plus O&M costs continue every year. All of those costs must be assigned to the water in years in years when it is needed.

RECOMMENDATION #10. Explore the feasibility of introducing federal legislation to expeditiously restore and protect Sockeye Salmon and other species in the upper basin and in tributaries.

Granted, the IP makes some needed headway on improvements in Yakima R. fish habitat and passage, but why take the slow lane? In the Yakima Basin, the Yakama Nation has a Treaty with the U.S. Multiple court cases support the Yakama’s Senior (dated from the Treaty date or even “time immemorial”), water rights that are “Reserved” for the purposes of the reservation and cannot be lost from non-use. Further (with some restrictions), the Treaty allows Yakama Nation members to fish (and hunt) in their usual and accustomed places. The fishing provision requires fish in the streams. As a Treaty obligation, the issues should have been settled outside any local water planning effort.

Everyone failed to seize on a precedent to expeditiously resolve those fishery rights. In Nevada, with the Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Rights Settlement Act (Title II, Section 206, P.L. 101-618), similar problems were resolved with a permanent fallow program.


This case study is not a perfect match for the Yakima R. Basin, but deals with similar fishery problems, involves the same federal agency (Bureau of Reclamation) and arid land irrigation. The parallels offer four clear insights and lessons.

1) No matter the popularity of applying energy and technology to enhance the water supply, the conflicts cannot be finally resolved in that manner because inadequate supply is not the root cause of conflict. The cause is inappropriate demand.

2) However catchy the popular press headlines may be, they often are incorrect and unhelpful. Water conflicts are never a case of “Fish vs. People.”   No fish are crying out for a reallocation of water to favor instream flows. It is always a case of people vs. people and the issue is which group will be favored by public policy. Some people want to extract the water, even if the streams go dry, and others want to maintain the streams to favor fish. Some people want both.

3) We are not exempt from the Laws of Ecology.   In nature, you cannot do just one thing. Human environmental manipulation typically leads to unanticipated consequences, and many of them are unhappy. There is a long list of known examples, and we can be certain more will be revealed. For our purposes here, when you treat a river like a ditch with levees, dams, rip-rap and dredging, it has severely limited habitat value.

4) When permanent fallow of irrigated land is acceptable, it may be a relatively low cost strategy for resolving water conflicts.

Briefly, the Truckee River flows north and eastward out of Lake Tahoe into a drier area and ends 100 miles away in Pyramid Lake, the low point of a basin of interior drainage. Two major fish species (Lahontan Cutthroat Trout and the Cui-ui) lived in the lake and used the river for spawning grounds. The Paiute Indians depended on the lake and the fish. The Cui-ui was one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-205). The fish helped to support Native Americans for millennia.

The Carson River Basin, immediately to the south, is another basin of internal drainage and is the location of the first irrigation project (The Newlands Project) authorized under the Reclamation Act of 1902 (aka. The Newlands Act named for Rep. Frederick Newlands of Nevada). Construction on Derby Dam on the Truckee River began in 1903. It diverted water into the Carson R. Basin to serve irrigation interests. The Stillwater Wildlife Refuge is at the low point in the Carson R. basin.

Extractions at Derby Dam badly depleted the downstream Truckee River, ruined spawning conditions, dramatically lowered the level of Pyramid Lake, flushed agricultural pollutants into the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge and killed migratory waterfowl.

In 1990, Congress passed the Settlement Act that allowed for fee simple acquisition and permanent fallow of irrigated land and water rights.

There are arguments against fallowing any farmland. Some are rational and can be addressed. **Some can never be satisfied. None of them should prohibit the practice.

1) Public purchases remove land from the local tax rolls and harm public services.

2) Remaining farmers must pay larger annual assessments to amortize and maintain the irrigation system.

3) There are third party effects. Growers down the ditch do not get the benefit of runoff water.

4) Local crop production is reduced and packers, shippers and processors are harmed.

5) Local income is reduced and this harms local business. Farm equipment sales are a common example.

6) Fallow land is a major source of dust and associated chemicals.

7) ** It is morally wrong to take irrigated land out of production.

8) ** Land fallow destroys the local custom and culture.

9) ** We produce food on the irrigated land.

10) ** My family has farmed that land for more than 100 years.

RECOMMENDATION #11. NEPA requires presentation and analysis of a broad range of techniques for resolving water issues. Rotation fallow and pressurized pipelines did not get a fair hearing.

An existing model for a rotation fallow program was negotiated between the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District in southern California. It is possible such a program could function in the Yakima River Basin. Here, program costs should be much lower than costs in California. On a per acre-foot cost of water obtained, it would be very competitive with any of the supply enhancement projects. With startup funds, a program in the Yakima Basin could become self-supporting. Enrolled land reduces demand and the now unneeded water increases supply.

Because it requires no new structures, rotation fallow should have a very favorable Benefit/Cost ratio. In comparison to permanent fallow, it would seem to be a somewhat more acceptable program for gracefully adjusting to supply variability. It reduces demand and adds to supply, thereby doubly reducing the magnitude of the problem (whatever that number is).

Advantages of Rotation Fallow

  1. Could be implemented in the near term at a comparatively modest cost because nothing new has to be invented or constructed.
  2. It could start small and be expanded to some maximum level.
  3. It is flexible enough to shrink during years when the water supply from the existing infrastructure is adequate to meet needs.
  4. Unlike structures, program costs rise and decline with water needs.
  5. Land remains with private owners who pay taxes and assessments.
  6. No land is permanently in fallow and is managed according to a conservation plan.
  7. Landowners are paid upfront to enroll in the program and again when their land is in fallow.
  8. Water is made available to people who are willing to pay for it.
  9. It could encourage more efficient use of water and might change the mix of crops in the basin.
  10. It is likely to increase the monetary return from each unit of water available as acres with lower productivity are enrolled and fallowed while the water is transferred to lands of higher productivity.

The Palo-Verde/MWD program in greater detail:

  • Each agreement extends for a 35 year time period.
  • Each farmer gets a one time, payment of $3,170 for each acre enrolled in the program.
  • No more than 29% (26,000 acres) of the project can be fallowed in any one year.
  • A minimum of 7% will be in fallow every year.
  • Any year when the land is in fallow the payment is $550 per acre
  • MWD can require enrolled land to be placed in fallow.
  • No land will be in fallow for more than 3 consecutive years.
  • The fallow land must be maintained in accordance with approved soil and water management plans.
  • The farmer is paid each year for each acre that is fallowed. The MWD gets the water for that year.
  • The MWD made a one-time investment of $6,000,000 in local community programs and $500,000 for environmental documentation and other project costs.
  • The Palo Verde Irrigation District receives an annual payment of $!00,000 for administrative purposes.

Serious water plans in a mature basin will encourage efficiency in water delivery and use, take advantage of gravity, and provide for routine water transfer of conserved water to other areas and high priority uses.

A fully pressurized delivery system was not included in the IP. Pipelines offer just about the ultimate in water conservation and some systems do exist in the Yakima River Basin. Pipelines are costly to construct but, on balance, are likely to have a better B/C ratio than dams and reservoirs. In addition, for reasons listed below, any rational water user would pay significantly more for pipeline water, rather than open ditch water.

In addition to reducing conveyance loss from seepage and evaporation to near zero, I list 16 additional potential advantages and benefits provided by a pressurized pipeline system.

  1. No water is needed to “prime” the ditches.
  2. Demand for electricity to run pumps that lift water to higher ditches and run sprinkler systems would be greatly reduced or even eliminated.
  3. Trash, debris, weed seeds, and chemicals that move in open ditches would be effectively eliminated.
  4. Without sunlight, problematic algae would no longer grow in the water.
  5. Small tributary streams, currently intercepted by the canals would resume more normal flow.
  6. The potential for accidental drowning of wildlife (known to happen) and people (rarely) is mostly gone.
  7. The grower has more control over the water. Each water allocation is available on demand, and stays in the system until needed.
  8. Water can be shut off with no loss when not needed or during times when evaporation is considered excessive.
  9. All extractions can be metered, even remotely. This feature can provide a record of use for specific crops on specific ground. Meters that automatically shut off when limits are reached surely would limit what I identify as “unauthorized and unrecorded water extractions.”
  10. Operational spills are minimized. When demand drops, the water stays in the line.
  11. When spring snowmelt is late, a pipeline can stretch out the time carryover reservoir water lasts.
  12. When wildfire drops the power poles, those with access will have water under pressure to protect property.
  13. In a small, but perhaps significant way, the pipeline could be filled during flood flows and serve as a storage unit. Flood control costs are non-reimbursable and not counted in a B/C analysis.
  14. It is technically possible to produce electricity with in-line turbines in a pipeline.   It is one way of reducing pressure in the pipeline. The flow of power would be intermittent and, most probably fairly costly. Still, the electricity would count as “renewable,” and some electricity purveyor well might help pay for the installation.
  15. With grower cooperation, saved water could replace creek irrigation water, and some of those streams, now periodically dewatered, could again support salmon and steelhead runs.
  16. Some of the saved water could be treated and allocated to domestic uses to ease the restrictions on new home construction. It would not be low priced, but domestic water will sell for 10 or 20 times the price of irrigation water and could help pay for the entire system.

Common objections to a pressurized pipeline can be addressed.

  1. Groundwater will not be recharged and some wells may go dry.
  2. Leakage maintains some wetland habitat that will vanish.
  3. Wildlife will have fewer opportunities for water.
  4. Irrigation districts that depend on leakage and return flows will need other arrangements.
  5. A canal is esthetically more pleasing than a pipeline.
  6. Relinquishment of that now excess water should be automatic, but is unpopular to unacceptable.

A fully piped Kittitas Reclamation District (KRD) could significantly reduce annual extractions from the Yakima R. at Easton with no reductions in deliveries to existing acreage in the KRD. That would be a significant reduction in the magnitude (whatever that is) of the problem. With essentially no losses in conveyance, a pipeline would make it easier to meet the IP goal of providing 70% of allocations to pro-rated water users in the KRD during low flow years. The pipeline could follow the existing KRD right of way. Saved water should be reallocated to entities willing to help pay for the pipeline system.

RECOMMENDATION #12. Never fall for the lure of mitigation. Environmentally, mitigation to compensate for habitat loss is a losing proposition. It is mostly an exercise in easing the conscience. Assume two similar 10,000-acre parcels of land. We now have a total of 20,000 acres. One is to be destroyed and the other acquired for protection. We end up with 10,000 acres. Some 10 years ago, I was asked by the local Audubon to assess the EIS for a proposed dam and reservoir in Lower Crab Creek, the longest creek in the state. In addition to many questionable figures and obvious errors I found that both the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and the Crab Creek State Wildlife Refuge would be severely impacted. No similar areas are found anywhere near them. Worse, some of the wildlife land to be inundated had been purchased by Grant County PUD as mitigation for land they flooded along the Columbia River. Here, I offer my bottom line to Audubon,

There is a limit on how many times and how far we can move the wildlife lands around to suit our immediate political or pecuniary purposes. I am reminded of the Erskine Caldwell character, Ty Ty Walden, in God’s Little Acre. He was a weak man of flawed character, but he did – sort of – set aside and dedicate one acre of his land to God. However, when he wanted to prospect for gold on God’s acre he just moved it around to suit his purposes.

In 1967 Dan Luten published a more elegant statement in an article on the Colorado River. He observed we are always looking for compromises between demands for beauty and utilitarian values. He concludes:

The compromises are never true ones, for beauty does all the compromising. Splitting the difference between utility and beauty again and again ultimately will leave nature next to nothing; half of a half of a half is a 16th. (Thomas R. Vale, 1986, Progress Against Growth: Dan Luten on the American Landscape, p.141)

Luten then suggested he would be more interested in a compromise in the other direction. Starting with two dams on the river, we will allow you to keep one and return the other to a place of beauty.

The “Nibbling Effect” is a close cousin of Mitigation.” I believe it applies to the Alpine Lakes as well as to streams and land areas. I can hear it now “We are only going to drain 2 of the dozens of lakes.” Over time, a development here and a lake drained or filled there will totally deplete the resource. Our segmented decision-making process encourages nibbling and resource depletion.

In 1966 I read about a river basin in the east where, in spite of fish ladders, a dam had destroyed the Shad run. I immediately realized that the destroyed fishery would no longer be counted as a cost in a benefit/cost analysis for another dam on that river. I was inspired to devise what I called a “Principle for a Declining Environment.”

Progress is always easier when you are going downhill. Put bluntly, the worse environmental conditions get, the easier it becomes to justify further degradation.

The notion certainly applies in both the larger Columbia River Basin and in the Yakima. In common with river basins throughout the arid West and all of America, people in all Yakima Basin jurisdictions are planning for growth. None are planning for stability or to use the pejorative term, “stagnation.” Planning Directors get fired if their community is experiencing a decline, even where a downward adjustment is totally appropriate.

Growth and Progress are revered in our society and our image of progress usually assumes growth. Sadly, the reality that limits require physical growth (including human population growth) to stop at some point is not locally persuasive.




Back To Top