Senate Committee Approves Water Bill for Washington State

Last week, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, secured the votes to advance her bill, S. 1694, the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act, which addresses long-standing water challenges in Washington?s Yakima River Basin.

The bill builds on existing legislation and authorizes the initial phase of an integrated water resources plan that aims to enhance the long-term sustainability and resilience of the Yakima River Basin.

The senator?s bill would benefit farmers, families and fish. First, the bill would support drought relief and resilience for farmers and communities in one of Washington?s most productive agricultural regions, through improved water infrastructure, storage and conservation. The bill would also support efforts to conserve 85,000 acre feet of water, as well as the restoration of habitat and ecosystems throughout the Yakima Basin. This includes fish passage and restoration projects that would restore one of the largest sockeye salmons runs in the lower 48 states that has been blocked for more than a century.

Since the bill?s introduction in July 2015, Sen. Cantwell and her staff have worked with the Yakama Nation, farmers and irrigation districts, conservation groups, state and local governments, and community members to improve the bill. These efforts have resulted in a number of changes to the bill since its introduction, including:

(1) Changes in how the Integrated Plan is defined and will be carried out;

(2) Changes to ensure broad public participation and oversight;

(3) Additional provisions supporting water conservation targets and water transfers;

(4) Additional provisions regarding studies to evaluate the feasibility, benefits and environmental impacts of projects in the basin; and

(5) Changes that clarify drought resilience activities to support irrigation districts and communities throughout the basin.

The enactment of this bill is critical for the Yakima Basin, which is predicted to face continued drought and water supply challenges in the years to come. The Yakima Basin, like much of the West, has faced an unprecedented drought this year with low snowpacks, high heat and catastrophic wildfires. Drought has caused billions of dollars in crop losses and related impacts this year alone.

This bill and the Integrated Plan it implements are designed to support the long-term resilience of the communities, economies and environment in the basin. As the Yakima Basin faces continued drought, the federal government has a responsibility to act now to prevent future impacts and costs in meeting its responsibilities in the basin, which include managing extensive Bureau of Reclamation projects, treaty and trust responsibilities to the Yakama Nation, and federal responsibilities in managing public lands and species.

?The Yakima water bill is a national model for watershed management, providing drought relief and resilience in one of Washington?s most productive agricultural regions. Farmers, fishers, irrigation districts, conservationists, community members, local governments and the Yakama Nation worked together to develop this innovative and locally-driven solution,??Sen. Cantwell?said. ?The federal government has a responsibility to act now to support these efforts; failure to act could have catastrophic economic and environmental impacts, as we face continuing drought and water challenges.?

The committee vote on a package of legislative measures, including the Yakima bill, clears the way for this important bill to be considered for passage by the full Senate. ?

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