Climate change is devastating the Colorado River. There is a model to avert the worst.

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

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

YAKIMA, Wash. — Water managers of the Yakima River basin in arid central Washington know what it’s like to fight over water, just as their Colorado River counterparts fight now. You know what it’s like to be desperate while drought, climate change, population growth, and agriculture are shrinking water supplies to crisis levels.

They understand the bitterness among the seven states of the Colorado Basin that are unable to agree on a plan for deep water use cuts that the federal government has been demanding to avert a disaster.

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

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Circumstances aren’t entirely parallel, but some western water experts point to the Yakima Plan as a model for the kind of cooperative effort that must now take place on the Colorado.

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

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

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

But it started with a strong sense of desperation.

Climate change and recurrent drought had ravaged water supplies for 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 and species threatened. Old dams built to store water had blocked the passage of fish, all but wiping out the trout and salmon that the indigenous Yakama nation had harvested for centuries. During droughts, water allocations for many farms were cut.

Years of court battles had left everyone unhappy, and a 2008 proposal for a costly new dam and reservoir that favored some groups over others hadn’t helped.

Ron Van Gundy, manager of the Roza Irrigation District at the southern end of the basin, visited Phil Rigdon, director of the Yakama Nation’s Department of Natural Resources. The two had fought for years, mostly over lawyers. They were both against the dam, but for different reasons.

“I just got 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 that.’”

The two met and eventually were joined by other stakeholders to develop a plan for better management of the river. After several years of give and take, the result was the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a blueprint for ensuring reliable and resilient water supplies for farmers, communities, natural habitats and fish, even in the face of continued warming and potentially more droughts.

A decade into the plan, there are tens of millions of dollars worth of projects upstream and downstream aimed at achieving these goals, including lining canals and other improvements in irrigation efficiency, increasing reservoir storage, and eliminating barriers for fish.

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

Now, hundreds of miles south and east, a similar sense of despair reigns among users of the Colorado.

With the river’s two main reservoirs at all-time lows, the federal government is asking the seven states that use the Colorado to reduce consumption by a staggering amount over the next year, up to a third of the river’s normal annual flow. And after 2023, as climate change continues to stress the river, painful long-term cuts in water use will be required.

Any cuts must be negotiated between states, which in most cases have fiercely protected their share of the river’s water. These shares were originally negotiated in wetter times a century ago.

The states have negotiated some key agreements over the years, including one mandating cuts based on water levels at Lake Mead in lower Colorado, first implemented last year. But calls for much larger reductions have put the spotlight on ongoing tensions between the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, which collectively consume less than their allotted share, and the lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona. who use their full quota or more.

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

The Yakima Basin is much smaller than the Colorado, with a population of 350,000 compared to the 40 million people who depend to varying degrees on the Colorado for sustenance. While farmland is important in the Basin (among other things, it produces about 75% of the country’s hops, which add a flavorful touch to countless beers and ales), agricultural production is much greater along the Colorado River.

The Yakima River, itself a tributary of the Columbia, is only 210 miles long, one-seventh the length of Colorado, and is in a single state, not seven plus Mexico. Thirty Native American tribes have rights to water in Colorado compared to only the Yakama Nation.

All of this has some water managers on the Colorado doubting that the Yakima plan could be a good example.

“The Colorado River is orders of magnitude more complex and difficult than the Yakima,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, which provides drinking water to the city and surrounding communities. “That makes it extremely difficult to sit down with a group of stakeholders and agree on a big solution.”

But those most familiar with the Yakima Plan say that the plan’s basic principle of shared sacrifice and cooperation between groups that have often been adversaries applies everywhere.

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

The Yakima River has a long history of overexploitation, dating back to early white settlers who arrived here after a treaty was signed between the federal government and the Yakama Nation in 1855. The river and its tributaries were dammed and diverted, and irrigation systems were built. Water scarcity quickly became a problem, especially in dry years, and led to conflicts between users for decades.

As with the Colorado, there were earlier efforts to ensure a stable supply, particularly after droughts in the 1930s and 40s. After another severe drought in 1977, state and federal officials developed a watershed improvement plan to improve fish passage.

But it wasn’t enough. For one thing, the droughts kept coming, said Urban Eberhart, who grew up on a farm in the basin and now heads the Kittitas Reclamation District in the northern section.

“Rather than just being one of those droughts, we started getting them in a row and then three in a row,” he said.

In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation conducted a study of the basin and how it would behave if the world continued to warm. The results increased the drive to develop a plan.

“What we went through from 1977 to 2009 was nothing compared to where we were going,” Eberhart said. There was a growing feeling that drastic measures were needed. “We will not recognize this economy or this ecosystem unless we act.”

With so much information to discuss, meetings on the plan were intense and time-consuming, Eberhart said. But this had one advantage: under time pressure, the participants began to take breaks and lunch together.

“Pretty soon, over time, we were all talking, being very suspicious of each other, and that turned into friendship, trust and respect,” he said.

Rigdon said a project is now more likely to garner broad support, even from groups that may not get as much benefit from it. Although challenges remain, he said: “We understood what the other side needs. And they are no longer the other side.”

The fruits of these relationships can be seen throughout the basin, in projects that typically serve more than one purpose and benefit more than one set of stakeholders.

In the Yakama Nation’s Irrigation District, canal work and dam improvements conserve water and improve fish habitat.

In his irrigation district, Eberhart has successfully attempted to use the canals to replenish long-dried streams and replenish fish stocks.

There are several projects under construction and proposed to increase water storage to survive dry years. And in the town of Yakima itself, Nelson Dam, an old diversion dam on a tributary was removed and replaced with an artificial canal that allows both fish and boats to pass through, redistributes sediment through the river system and reduces flooding, all while it continues to divert water for the city’s needs.

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

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