SPOKANE — A bill to ensure the future water supply of the arid but fertile Yakima River Basin passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.
The measure must now be reconciled with the House energy bill in the next few months, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said.
The complicated bill would restore historic fish runs blocked for more than a century and help prevent future droughts for farmers and communities in the Yakima River Basin.
“We must act now to address the nation’s water challenges and the impacts of drought and climate change,” Cantwell said. “We have to put the days of fighting over water behind us.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also supported the bill.
The Yakima River supports a $4 billion agricultural economy, provides outdoor recreation opportunities, and has sustained the Yakama Nation for millennia, Cantwell said.
The bill would relieve droughts through improved water infrastructure, storage and conservation. It would restore fish habitat throughout the Yakima Basin, including fish passage that would restore one of the largest sockeye salmons runs in the lower 48 states.
The Yakima Basin, like much of the West, faced an unprecedented drought in 2015 with low snow packs, high heat and catastrophic wildfires. Drought caused millions of dollars in crop losses.
The bill will protect one of the most important watersheds in the state, said Tom Tebb, director of the Office of Columbia River with the Washington Department of Ecology.
“The act will fund real projects to construct fish passage at reservoirs, improve stream flows throughout the watershed, and bolster water supplies for one of the country’s top agricultural regions,” Tebb said.
The legislation was praised by irrigators, the Yakama Nation and some environmental groups.
“This is a key step in restoring the resources the Yakama people were promised by treaty 150 years ago,” said Phil Rigdon, an official with the Yakama Nation.
“The Yakima bill embodies the kind of effective collaboration that will be needed to outpace threats from climate change,” said Michael Garrity, Puget Sound-Columbia Basin Director for American Rivers.
However, some environmental groups criticized the effort, saying it will cost taxpayers billions of dollars and fails to encourage good stewardship of scarce water. The bill will provide more federal water to irrigators holding so-called junior water rights, whose water supply is cut during drought years, they contend.
Bill Campbell of Friends of Lake Kachess said the bill is about “losing money, turning popular lakes into mud flats, drowning ancient forests, risking endangered species.”
“Our water future in the Yakima Basin rests with improved efficiencies and conservation,” said Chris Maykut of Friends of Bumping Lake.
Cantwell introduced the bill last July, saying it represented compromise between conservation, recreation, agricultural and municipal interests.