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Originally published October 25, 2012 at 5:13 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 10:56 AM

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Management plan for Yakima River Basin provides a splash of can-do cheer | Lance Dickie

Progress on a broad plan for the Yakima River Basin is a refreshing counterpoint to frustrations with gridlock elsewhere in politics.

Times editorial columnist

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A long, frustrating campaign season and years of legislative paralysis in Congress fuel a need for optimism about a fresh start in politics.

I believe I have found it, and it is here at home in this Washington. The name does not roll off the tongue, but it illustrates how things can change for the better:

The Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan is a product of extraordinary work and compromise, and it offers long-term benefits for the environment and economy.

The Yakima River Basin plan will take purposeful action in Olympia and Washington, D.C., to happen.

Lawmakers responsible for making the necessary budget and policy decisions should be inspired and respectful of the broad interests represented, and the compromises made to reach agreement.

So what topic stirs such lofty sentiments? Water, of course. Here in the West the fundamental issue is water, and it only becomes more acute on the east side of the state.

Water: Where will it come from, who gets it, who loses it and how will it be provided? The competition roils among people, agriculture and fish.

The fistfight over diminishing resources in the Yakima River Basin has stretched over decades, but was made all the more real by the 2005 drought. Plans for the monster Black Rock reservoir project did not hold up to federal scrutiny, and crashed in 2008 and early 2009.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology launched another look at the options around 2009. Things took a hopeful turn, driven in large part by broad frustration with a lack of substantive progress.

Environmental organizations promoted water conservation and habitat improvements, and struggled with difficult decisions over water storage.

The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation wanted improved fish passage to support ongoing efforts to return sockeye salmon to the Yakima River. Irrigators sought predictable water supplies from doable plans.

The earth moved when the Yakama Nation and Roza Irrigation District in Sunnyside signed a joint letter calling for a more practical approach to basin planning.

A powerful example was set for compromise by all parties. A working group put together a plan that caused everyone to grind their teeth at some point.

Nearly a dozen environmental groups eventually signed on to an approach that would protect 70,000 acres of watershed, forest and shrub steppe habitat, and implement agricultural water conservation programs, if accommodations for water storage were accepted.

Reservoir fish passage is planned at five sites. That complements creative groundwater-storage proposals, enhanced water-marketing systems and a lowering of legal barriers to water transfers.

The give and take of philosophical, financial and political values is intense, but directed toward substantial environmental and economic benefits for the Yakima River Basin, Eastern Washington and the state.

This is a work in progress for the state Legislature and in Congress. Lots of names get repeated for what was accomplished and remains to be done: Gov. Chris Gregoire; Jay Manning, former state Ecology director; Wendy Christensen, Reclamation; Derek Sandison, Ecology; Phil Rigdon, Yakama Nation; Urban Eberhart, Kittitas Reclamation District; Ron VanGundy, Roza Irrigation District; Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell; Mike Garrity, American Rivers; U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.

None of the opportunities, and the hard work that created them, occur in isolation. Washington agricultural products have a lucrative future in the new U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement.

The basin plan needs an early infusion of $20 million to help with an initial implementation plan for fish passage, water conservation and market adjustments. A variety of local, state and federal funds must be tapped.

Looking out decades, total federal assistance approaches $5 billion — a basic public investment that will pay huge dividends.

This is a good time for state lawmakers and our congressional delegation to recognize the need and opportunity to help. They should be quick to celebrate and applaud the progress made.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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