How the western water wars may end

A novel plan in Washington State overcomes old animosities and offers the region a way forward in era of global warming.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
The Columbia River, whose languid waters are tapped by many different users, from farmers to hyrdoelectric plant operators, flows through arid escarpments near the tiny town of Vantage in Central Washington.

Over the past 100 years, this arid region of Central Washington has undergone a stunning transformation. Engineers and farmers have captured the annual mountain snowmelt and used it to change the sagebrush steppe into an agricultural Eden of tree fruits, mint, hay, and corn​.

Rows of green crops adorn a once-parched landscape. Reservoirs funnel water to farms and turn massive turbines that spirit electricity to far-off coastal cities. And Central Washington has become an apple basket for the world.

​Charlie de la Chapelle has lived the story of this water-borne agrarian bounty. His family has worked the land for four generations, and the square-jawed farmer has spent a successful career cultivating apples and pears.

But in recent years, his livelihood has been growing less reliable. First federal and state courts said farmers needed to leave more water in rivers for endangered fish to survive. Then changes in snowmelt worsened Mr. De la Chapelle’s situation. He’s noticed snowpack on nearby Mt. Adams getting lighter and his water allotment less predictable.

“The only way I can make it work is by keeping ground out of production,” he says.

Now, with its old water habits threatening livelihoods and ways of life, the area is undergoing another transformation. It is revamping how it manages one of its most precious resources – and in the process could point the way for an American West where long-standing water challenges are only growing more urgent and fractious. 

In an innovative agreement, farmers have joined with environmental groups and state and federal officials to both increase water availability and restore the natural landscape. Although the plan focuses on just one section of the state, it is an agriculturally significant one – the Yakima Basin. And it’s comprehensive: The plan includes voluntary conservation programs, building new water-storage reservoirs, and adding structures to dams that would help fish seek cooler waters as they migrate upstream. The framework,​ in place at the state level since 2012, has begun to show promise, even though federal approval by the US Congress is still needed for full implementation. 

Some people – including De la Chapelle – are skeptical the plan will work. But many water experts say the fledgling accord could be a model largely because farmers themselves have agreed to pay for investments that promise to enable their water needs to be met alongside those of city dwellers and endangered salmon.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Mt. Adams looms in the background of the Yakima Basin in the Yakama Indian Reservation of Central Washington.

“What they’re doing in Yakima is representative of what we’re trying to do in other basins [across the West],” says Mike Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior in Washington, D.C., whose first assignment at the agency in the mid-1990s was working on water issues in the Yakima Basin. 

The pressure to solve decades-old disputes is rising. Water is already one of the West’s most contentious issues, with an infinite number of colliding interests – urban residents, farmers, environmentalists, native Americans, agribusiness owners, hydroelectric operators – all dipping their hoses into receding rivers and reservoirs. The only thing they all seem to have in common is their impulse to hire a lawyer.

Now, amid growing urbanization and the effects of climate change, the tensions are becoming even more fraught. 

Yet the Yakima accord has given some people optimism that there’s a way out of this Gordian knot. They hope the example here – the deal as well as the years of squabbling and millions of dollars spent in courtrooms – will convince other regions to broker similar accords rather than perpetuate the debilitating era of water wars. 

Mark Johnston has seen those battles firsthand. He’s a biologist who has worked 27 years for the Yakama Nation, a local tribe whose 161-year-old legal water rights – and emphasis on restoring salmon populations – often put it in conflict with farmers.

“We used to go in there with our attorneys and we wouldn’t even talk,” says Mr. Johnston. “Everyone wants to yell, and that’s how those meeting used to be.... People used to yell from the back of the meeting, ‘Get a rope!’ ” 

But those years of rancor may have accomplished something – showing what didn’t work. 

What changed wasn’t just that various parties got fed up with the court battles. It’s also what they began observing: Too many fish kept dying and water levels were dropping. Farmers, in particular, could see changes in the region’s snows and rains – and realized what it meant for their business.

De la Chapelle knew that as a “junior” irrigator: By law he must wait until all the “senior” rights holders take water before taking his own. That’s a common legal structure in the West. It doesn’t help that Washington, like many states, has a “use it or lose it” policy in which water-rights holders forfeit any allotments they don’t use. 

All this means that in drought years, like last year, De la Chapelle isn’t assured of getting all his water. His situation is exacerbated by climate change, with some models predicting drought as often as every other year for the Yakima Basin.

“If these [droughts] occur on a back-to-back basis, the seniors will have a problem and all the juniors will be dried up,” says De la Chapelle.

That compelled De la Chapelle and other farmers – regardless of whether they would use the phrase “climate change” in describing their rationale – to work on a new watershed-management plan with other parties.

“As a generalization, because the east side [of the Cascade Range] is more conservative politically, it has been slow to buy into the idea of climate change and global warming – ‘it’s a hoax by those no-good people on the left,’ ” De la Chapelle says. “And the projections that have been made are just starting to gain more credence by the populations on the east side.” 

A fast-talking farmer and self-described history buff, De la Chapelle says he quickly began to realize his apples were suffering “sunburn” more than in the past. Sunburn occurs when solar radiation and temperatures intensify, producing black spots, browned or bleached skin, and interior fruit damage. Some technological solutions exist, such as crop protectants. But adequate water supplies can help a lot, too.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Snowmelt from the mountain is crucial to recharging local streams, rivers, and irrigation canals, which farmers use to water their fields in a lush agricultural landscape of apple orchards, mint, hay, and corn.

To increase the flow in the fields and orchards, junior irrigators have agreed to pay for new reservoirs to catch more snowmelt. And a bill in Congress aims to authorize a public-private partnership in which the irrigators would fund a water pump at a federal dam that farmers could tap for more water during droughts.

“We’re willing to pay for it. I think that’s what shocked them,” says Ric Valicoff, a fruit grower and president of the Roza Irrigation District board.

Mr. Valicoff says farmers in his irrigation district now understand the need for annual fee increases to fund water-infrastructure projects. Last year, the district “had to spend quite a bit of money buying water and scrounging [around] any way we could,” he says. So when the district asked its members for a $43-per-acre fee to buoy water supplies for drought relief this year, there was little resistance, even if not everyone agrees on the cause or effect of climate change. 

Valicoff says he doesn’t care whether humans are responsible for the change in climate. He just wants to deal with the results of it. Adaptation is necessary, no matter what the cause.

“What I think came out of [the Yakima meetings] was we all recognized we have a warmer climate. That’s quite obvious,” Valicoff says. 

It’s perhaps fitting that the Yakima valley would provide a potential model for adapting to the current period of climate change and strain on water resources.

The valley’s deep crevices and fertile soil were created by the Missoula floods, drowning the region about 15,000 years ago when the great glaciers receded. Ice ages and warm periods in Earth’s geologic history have resulted from variations every 100,000 years in the planet’s elliptical orbit around the sun: The slight shifts in the tilt of its axis every 41,000 years and Earth’s natural “wobble” in 26,000-year cycles alter the amount of incoming solar radiation, feeding or melting ice sheets.

But climate scientists say what makes the current warming trend different is that Earth’s position and tilt relative to the sun should correspond with much cooler temperatures than at present. Instead, the consensus of climate scientists is that greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels, are pushing temperatures higher.

In the American West, this means that climate change is leaving mountains with less snowpack and underground aquifers with less rainfall to recharge them. That’s layered atop the challenges of rising urban populations, endangered species, and reliance on hydropower.

“We are having a tough time keeping up with the challenges,” says the Interior Department’s Mr. Connor.

The effects vary across the West. In California, for example, the chance of drought occurring is becoming twice as likely as temperatures get hotter, estimates Noah Diffenbaugh, a climatologist at Stanford University. That’s because, compared with historical records, California is enduring far more hot years combined with low precipitation. “We’re on the cusp of it happening essentially every year,” Mr. Diffenbaugh says of the chances of high-temperature years occurring. “What that means is we have a much higher risk of it turning into drought.” 

In the Pacific Northwest, by contrast, climate change won’t necessarily mean less overall precipitation – in fact, an increase is possible. But scientists see it imposing constraints on water resources nonetheless. 

The key reason: Less precipitation will fall as snow. This is significant because the Yakima River, a tributary of the Columbia, has five storage dams that hold 40 percent of the water needed for local agriculture. Rainfall averages less than 10 inches annually. So for farmers the runoff from places like Mt. Adams is vital. 

When snow melts too quickly, or when big rains come after the growing season, the region’s reservoirs simply aren’t able to store and use it the way they can with the traditional slow snowmelt. The result is too little water for both farmers and fish. 

Climate change is only likely to aggravate the problem. A 2010 University of Washington study found that probabilities of enduring a water-short year in the 2020s would nearly double compared with historical averages – to 27 percent, up from 14 percent, and possibly rising to 68 percent in the 2080s without adaptation.

Indeed, without changes to how water is used – whether through treating stormwater, increasing use of recycled or “reclaimed” water, reducing consumption, encouraging development of a free market for water, processing brackish water, or changing bedrock water policies – parts of the West might run out of the stuff altogether. 

That’s largely because the region urbanized and grew during an unnaturally wet period. The founding water-resource-sharing document, the Colorado River Compact, which spans seven states, was inked in 1922 – a high-water year that appears unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. On top of that, very little reliable data exists on how much water is stored underground and how quickly it’s being depleted. Most states poorly monitor how much water people use.  

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Biologist Scott Nicolai is working to restore the natural flow of rivers and creeks in the Yakima Basin of Washington State. He obstructs the creek with logs, which slows the flow of the stream, providing a better habitat for fish and recharging aquifers used in farming.

On a hot late-summer day, habitat biologist Scott Nicolai is traversing the banks of the Yakima Basin’s Taneum Creek. 

The creek is at a trickle, since late summer is its typical low point. But within the heavily shaded woods, fallen trees lie in the stream and have widened its course. They have restored Taneum’s natural flow, allowing the return of native willow, cottonwood, mock orange, and dogwood that had disappeared decades ago.

Farther downstream, a restored flood plain has turned a brown patch of decaying vegetation into a meadow with native grasses that reach four feet high.

These are the types of projects the Yakima plan will support, serving the twin purposes of encouraging better habitat for fish vital to the Yakama Nation and recharging underground aquifers used in agriculture.

In his work with the Yakama tribe, Mr. Nicolai has dumped dead trees and other woody material along the creek to reestablish its natural flow and provide habitat for fish and other species. This allows runoff from Mt. Adams that would otherwise be channeled downriver to percolate through the soil and into underground aquifers, reemerging in streams later in the summer as cool water to support fish spawning and migration.

“I’ve walked into those back channels on a 90-degree day in the summer and they’re full of fish,” Nicolai says.

That’s good news to Davis Washines, chairman of the Yakama Nation General Council. Before the era of apple-growing and massive hydro projects, his tribe’s way of life centered partly on the sockeye salmon that were then abundant in the Yakima River. Salmon is one of the first foods brought out at every feast. 

But the old ecology of fisheries soon clashed with the new ways of agriculture and hydropower. The Yakima River, for example, historically hosted between 500,000 and 1 million sockeye salmon. By the time the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973, it had none. Restoration efforts have brought some recovery, but to this day the sockeye populations remain decimated.

The fish are crucial to the ongoing water-rights fight – and to the path toward a compromise. Court decisions affirming the tribe’s 1855 treaty rights to the fish gave it a trump card in negotiations. The rulings dictated farmers must leave enough water in streams for fish to survive, especially in summer months. Salmon die when water temperatures rise above 60 degrees F. The court decisions also clarified how much water everyone in the Yakima Basin owns and can use – something that made the negotiations easier. 

Dressed in a Seattle Mariners jersey and seated in the tribe’s headquarters, Mr. Washines describes how the tribe’s success in those legal fights finally helped push farmers toward the recent pact. 

“[The] realization that we’re going to go to court if we have to” played a role in driving an agreement, he says. And beyond that, the various parties to negotiations had come to understand that water-resource “benefits are not just for the Yakama Nation but they should be for everybody.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Tom Elliott, a riparian ecologist for the Yakama Nation, is working to restore native plants vital to the tribe’s culture as food or medicine in Central Washington.

In parallel with court fights, and the transformation along Taneum Creek, recent years have seen a shift in thought among the region’s farmers. 

Those with junior water rights, in particular, came to view brinkmanship as senseless when their water was becoming so constrained anyway. That realization pulled the irrigators and the Yakama Nation into an unlikely alliance, propelling them to find ways to reduce water consumption and use natural ecosystem features to reestablish fish habitats. 

There’s little, after all, that farmers can do to stop changes in the local snowpack and the timing of its melt. What they could do was seek practical answers to their new reality.  

One solution for irrigation-water shortfalls is to build new reservoirs. So the Yakima Basin agreement aims to do just that, though it’s a contentious idea. Reservoirs are expensive, they disrupt fish migration, and they change the ecology of the river system. At the federal level, there’s no desire to fund new dams, says the Interior Department’s Connor.

That’s one of the reasons people consider the Yakima plan remarkable. Thanks in large part to the state of Washington buying and protecting 50,000 acres of forestland and federal authorization for passages to allow fish migration through existing reservoirs, some national environmental groups have agreed to step aside on opposing new dam construction. Meanwhile, junior irrigators have agreed to pay for new storage reservoirs.

The top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, is hoping to move broad federal energy legislation this fall that, in part, would authorize the first 10 years of a three-phase, 30-year plan that would largely be financed through non-federal spending. A similar bill exists in the House. The state of Washington already has committed $130 million to the plan. [Editor's Note: This paragraph has been updated to clarify the scope of the legislation.]

“The thing that’s really important about the Yakima [plan] is that we didn’t reach a breaking point,” says Steve Malloch, principal of Western Water Futures and a consultant with the environmental group American Rivers. “We could see a breaking point on the horizon. There were people involved with enough foresight and enough fortitude to say ‘let’s deal with this now while we can.’ ”

Still, roadblocks to the plan exist. Several conservation groups support the first 10-year phase, but are cautious about building new dams in the second and third phases. Some community groups near the lakes that would get dammed and host a drought relief pump flatly oppose the deal. Others say the estimated $5 billion cost is too much to overcome given that farmers are expected to pay for most of it and federal dollars are scarce. 

“I don’t think it does any good to lie to other people or to yourself,” says Darryll Olsen, board representative of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, which didn’t participate in the negotiation. 

Yet, with or without the agreement, climate change is making water managers’ jobs far more complex in the vast Columbia River system. They are often hamstrung: Court decisions requiring wildlife protection and rigid federal timelines for releasing water have left them with little flexibility to adjust to changing precipitation patterns. In the Southwest, water levels are getting so low at Lake Mead and Lake Powell that their respective dams, Hoover and Glen Canyon, can’t produce as much hydropower as in the past.

“We keep making constant improvements; we keep negotiating agreements that result in more water conservation, more water; and we need to keep on that trajectory because I don’t see it getting any easier,” Connor says. “Certainly there’s an urgency to making these improvements given the challenges we’re facing from a water supply perspective.”

•     •     •

More than anything, many people believe the Yakima agreement can change the political tone surrounding contentious Western water wars.

Tom Elliott is one of them. As a riparian ecologist for the Yakama Nation, his work has helped reestablish native plants vital to the tribe’s culture as food or medicines. 

“It seems like a universal thing in developed countries that we want to live near water. And then as soon as we start living there we get bothered that these areas flood,” he says while driving his truck past fields of mint, hops, hay, and corn in the basin’s back roads. “So as soon as we get there we do a disconnection of the channel from the flood plain. We’re learning now to have a more in-between way. We’re respecting people’s property but also having flexibility to allow nature to breathe.”

The rest of the West, in many ways, is learning that same ethos. The region’s water situation is calling into question the very ways in which people live: from how long a shower should take, to whether they should have a green lawn, to whether they should spend money to draw water from ever deeper depths to support their farms.

Mr. Elliott says he saw a compromising spirit last year. As the drought hit the basin, junior irrigators were forced to take less water as demand outstripped supply. Newspapers filled with frantic letters to the editor. Yet chatter at local hangouts and in town was civil, if occasionally tense. 

Elliott – a man who’s devoted his life to saving fish in an agricultural area – says the basin learned quite a bit about resiliency in the face of conflict. The Yakima Basin might have found that in-between way.

“I think last year was a real stress test for relationships,” Elliot says. “And I think we passed.”

– This story was funded by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University in California. 



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