Climate change is ravaging the Colorado River.  There is a model for averting the worst.

Climate change is ravaging the Colorado River. There is a model for averting the worst.

Climate change is ravaging the Colorado River.  There is a model for averting the worst.

Apricots from an orchard in the Irrigation District of Roza, Washington on July 18, 2022. (Ruth Fremson / The New York Times)

Apricots from an orchard in the Irrigation District of Roza, Washington on July 18, 2022. (Ruth Fremson / The New York Times)

YAKIMA, Washington – The water managers of the Yakima River Basin in arid central Washington know what it’s like to fight for water, just as they are fighting their counterparts along the Colorado River. They know what it’s like to be desperate, as drought, climate change, population growth and agriculture reduce water supplies to crisis levels.

They understand the acrimony among the seven states of the Colorado Basin, unable to agree on a plan for deep water use cuts that the federal government has called for to avoid disaster.

But a decade ago, the Yakima Basin water managers tried something different. Tired of spending more time in courtrooms than at conference tables, and faced with studies showing that the situation would only get worse, they came up with a plan to manage the Yakima River and its tributaries for the next 30 years to ensure supply. stable water.

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The circumstances are not entirely parallel, but some Western water experts point to the Yakima plan as a model for the kind of cooperative effort that needs to take place on Colorado right now.

“It will require collaboration on an unprecedented scale,” said Maurice Hall, vice president for climate resilient water systems at the Environmental Defense Fund. The Yakima basin plan, he said, “is the most complete example of what we need that I have observed.”

Representative Melanie Stansbury, DN.M., who worked on the Yakima Basin and other water issues for years before being elected to Congress in 2021, said the plan “represents the best of a science-based collaborative process.” .

“It’s a successful model for bringing science and stakeholders to the table,” he said.

But it was born out of a strong sense of despair.

Climate change and recurrent drought had devastated the water supply of irrigation managers and farmers in the Yakima Basin, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions. Conservationists were concerned that habitats were drying up, threatening species. Old dams built to store water had blocked the passage of fish, completely eliminating the trout and salmon that the indigenous Yakama nation had been harvesting for centuries. In the event of a drought, water allocations to many farms were reduced.

Years of brawling in court had left everyone unsatisfied, and a proposal in 2008 for an expensive new dam and reservoir that would favor some groups over others didn’t help.

Ron Van Gundy, manager of the Roza Irrigation District at the southern end of the basin, visited Phil Rigdon, director of the natural resources division of the Yakama Nation. The two had been fighting for years, largely through lawyers. Both opposed the dam, but for different reasons.

“I was walking into a meeting,” Rigdon recalled in an interview. “And he said, ‘Hey Phil, can we talk?’ I started laughing and said, ‘I don’t know, can we? Our lawyers would probably freak out if we did. ‘”

The two met and eventually other interested parties joined them in developing a plan for better river management. After several years of trial and exchange, the result was the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a project to ensure a reliable and resilient water supply for farmers, municipalities, natural habitats and fish, even in the face of continuous and potentially multiple warming. Drought .

Ten years after the plan, there are tens of millions of dollars worth of up and down river projects designed to meet those goals, including canal lining and other improvements in irrigation efficiency, increasing reservoir storage. and the removal of fish barriers.

“It’s an amazing collaboration of all these different agencies with all these different interests, coming together and realizing that we can’t just focus on our agenda,” said Joe Blodgett, fisheries project manager for the Yakama Nation.

Now, hundreds of miles south and east, there is a similar sense of desperation among Colorado users.

With the river’s two major reservoirs at all-time lows, the federal government is asking the seven states using Colorado to cut consumption next year by a staggering amount – up to one-third of the river’s normal annual flow. And beyond 2023, as climate change continues to impact the river, painful long-term cuts in water use will be needed.

All reductions will have to be negotiated between states that, more often than not, have been fiercely protective of their share of river water. Those shares were originally traded during the wettest periods a century ago.

States have negotiated some major deals over the years, including one that included cuts, based on water levels at Lake Mead in lower Colorado, which were first implemented last year. But the call for much larger reductions has highlighted the perennial tensions between the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, which collectively use less than their allotted quota, and the lower basin states of California, Nevada. and Arizona, who use their full allotment or more.

States missed the mid-August deadline to negotiate next year’s cuts. The federal government has actually given them more time, but is threatening to step in and order the reductions.

The Yakima Basin is much smaller than Colorado, with a population of 350,000 compared to the 40 million people who depend, to varying degrees, on Colorado’s supply. While farmland in the basin is important (among other things, they produce about 75% of the country’s hops that add flavor to countless beers and ales), agricultural production along Colorado is much broader.

The Yakima River, itself a tributary of Columbia, is only 210 miles long, one seventh the length of Colorado, and is within a single state, not seven plus Mexico. Thirty native tribes have Colorado water rights, compared to the Yakama nation alone.

All of this makes some Colorado water managers doubt that the Yakima plan could be a model.

“The Colorado River is orders of magnitude more complex and difficult than the Yakima,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, which supplies clean water to the city and surrounding communities. “This makes it extremely difficult to bring together a group of stakeholders and agree on a big solution.”

But those who are deeply familiar with the Yakima plan say that the fundamental principle of the plan, of shared sacrifice and cooperation between groups that were often adversaries, can be applied everywhere.

“Everyone can’t get everything they want,” said Thomas Tebb, director of the Columbia River office of the state ecology department. “But if they can get something, that’s really the basis of the plan.”

The Yakima River has a long history of overuse, dating back to the first white settlers who arrived after the signing of a treaty between the federal government and the Yakama nation in 1855. The river and its tributaries were dammed and diverted, and systems of irrigation. Water shortages quickly became a problem, especially in dry years, leading to decades of conflict between users.

As with Colorado, there have been previous efforts to ensure a stable supply, especially following the drought in the 1930s and 1940s. After another severe drought in 1977, state and federal officials developed a “watershed improvement” plan to try to improve the passage of fish.

But that wasn’t enough. For one thing, the drought kept coming, said Urban Eberhart, who grew up on a farm in the basin and now runs the Kittitas Reclamation District in the north.

“Instead of just being one of these droughts, we started doing them one after another and then three in a row,” he said.

In 2010, the Federal Office of Reclamation undertook a study of the basin, looking at how it would fare as the world continued to warm. The results added impetus to the drive to develop a plan.

“What we went through from 1977 to 2009 was nothing compared to where we were headed,” said Eberhart. There was a growing feeling that drastic action was needed. “We won’t recognize this economy or this ecosystem if we don’t act.”

With so much information to discuss, the meetings on the plan have been intense and time-consuming, Eberhart said. But this had an advantage: short of time, the participants started taking breaks and lunches together.

“Soon, over time, all of us who were very suspicious of each other would talk, and that turned into friendship, trust and respect,” he said.

Rigdon said a project is now most likely receiving broad support, even from groups that may not see many benefits. Although the challenges remain, he said, “We understand what the other side needs. And I’m no longer on the other side “.

The fruits of these relationships can be seen across the basin, in projects that usually have more than one purpose and benefit more than one stakeholder group.

In the Yakama Nation Irrigation District, canal work and dam improvement are saving water and improving fish habitat.

In his irrigation district, Eberhart has successfully led efforts to use the canals to supply water to long-dried waterways to restore fish.

There are several projects, under construction and proposed, to increase water storage to help overcome the dry years. And in the city of Yakima itself, the Nelson Dam has been removed, an old diversion dam on a tributary, replaced by a designed canal that will allow the passage of fish and boats, redistribute sediments through the river system and reduce flooding, all continuing to divert the water for the needs of the city.

“It’s not doing one thing: doing things that meet everyone’s criteria,” said George Brown, assistant director of public works for the city. “If you do, everyone agrees.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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