This is the second story in our two-part series on how drought and climate change are changing the way the Northwest looks to reservoirs to meet its water needs. Read part one here.
This summer’s hot, dry weather has left Northwest apple growers hurting for water to irrigate their orchards. It’s a hint at what’s predicted as the climate continues to warm.
That’s why a drought plan for Washington’s Yakima basin is being worked up. It calls for a mountain lake to be partially drained to provide more water for agriculture. That’s struck a nerve with some conservation groups and homeowners.
Bill Campbell stands at the edge of Kachess Lake. It’s in the Cascades near the summit of Snoqualmie Pass. The volunteer firefighter lives here year round on the lake’s shoreline. He walks with fellow homeowner Grant Learned to the waterfront, a short distance from Campbell’s home.
“This was created by glaciers over millennia. That created a lake that was 400-feet deep at its deepest,” Campbell said.
The view of the crystal blue lake sparkles from large bay windows in his home. It's a popular lake among visitors, too. In the summertime boaters start lining up at sunrise near one of the lake's docks to find a spot to park their tow vehicles.
But all that could soon change if a water plan for the Yakima Basin becomes a reality. It’s a plan Campbell opposes.
It’s a plan with an unexpected twist. Among the many moving parts in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (pdf) are proposals to build and expand reservoirs to hold more water for using during long dry periods. But there's a twist: Here at Kachess Lake these cabins won’t be flooded for expanded storage capacity. They could soon be sitting on mudflats.
“You would not be able to see the water because it drops off so steeply. If you were standing up there it would look like the Grand Canyon,” Campbell said.
Campbell and others around the lake foresee a long list of problems, besides the property-value drops they expect. Once there’s much less water in the lake, they say, it could be less hospitable for threatened bull trout that need enough water to reach their spawning grounds in adjoining streams.
Critics also worry that fighting fires could become more difficult if hoses no longer reach the water. Not to mention other economic and environmental concerns conservation groups have about the plan as a whole.
But government officials say draining Kachess Lake is one of the most important steps in getting water to irrigation districts and crops downstream during drought years. Its water will be pumped from the lake into the Kachess River, which drains into the Yakima River, where it will flow into canals that growers use to irrigate their crops.
Wendy Christensen, the technical project program manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said water from Kachess Lake could play a big role in drought years for fruit growers and other irrigators.
“There’s people that are taking out their trees. They’re just not able to water them enough late in the season to make it work for next year. So it’s the difference in being able to sustain an orchard or not,” Christensen said.
To get environmental groups and tribal leaders to agree to the water plan, there had to be a few deals for environmental improvements elsewhere in the region. There was the purchase of a community forest in Central Washington and improvements to help endangered salmon get past dams at Lake Cle Elum.
Christensen said it’s going to be crucial to find a way to deal with the predicted loss of snowpack, which acts like an extra, natural reservoir in Washington’s mountains.
To do that, she said, Kachess Lake will need to be partially drained.
“So we’re not talking about new agriculture or any new acres. We’re talking about shoring up our existing supplies to meet our existing demands,” Christensen said.
Kachess Lake homeowner Grant Learned agrees that steps must be taken to meet drought-year water demands. But spending $5 billion on a water plan that calls for partially draining a naturally occurring lake should not be one of them.
Before moving ahead with such a plan, he said, the region should do a better job at conservation.
“If we might need more water, how about if we simply use less and require people to use less?” Learned said.
Clarification. Sept. 9, 2015: An earlier version of this story did not address Kachess Lake's historic use as a water source. The government first authorized irrigators to draw water from the lake around the turn of the 20th century. The Yakima water management plan proposes to nearly double the amount of water drawn from Kachess Lake for irrigation.