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USGS Study Linking Ground/Surface Waters Used To Evaluate Yakima Basin Water Rights Issues
Posted on Friday, May 25, 2012 (PST)

A recently finalized U.S. Geological Survey groundwater study will be used to evaluate water right applications in the Yakima River Basin, the Department of Ecology announced this week.


Letters have been sent to some 116 applicants for new ground and surface water permits in the Wide Hollow and Moxee subbasins letting them know their requests will be among the first to be considered now that the scientific study and model is complete.


Released last fall, the USGS study indicates pumping from underground aquifers draws water from the river and contributes to surface water shortages in the basin. The impacts are particularly felt in July and August when senior water right holders such as irrigators and fisheries need it most.


The information in the study reinforces that ground and surface waters in the basin must be managed as one resource.


Applicants are asked to consider a number of options to help the agency in making permit decisions about their proposed water use in the context of study results. Ecology anticipates that new water uses in the Wide Hollow and Moxee sub-basins will require mitigation to offset the expected impacts of a new withdrawal on the river and senior users. Mitigation may be achieved by obtaining coverage under a senior water right.


The model numerically characterizes the interaction between underground aquifers and surface water in the basin. It also provides the scientific information for identifying how mitigation may be accomplished to offset the impacts of new water permits.


“How water resources will be managed in the Yakima River Bain has been the focus of study and evaluation for two decades,” said Maia Bellon, Water Resources Program manager for Ecology. “The USGS study tells us that water drawn from deep aquifers reduces surface water at a greater rate than previously thought. It is imperative that we protect the resource and the rights of senior water users. By doing so, we protect the tremendous economic and environmental values of the basin.”


Water is in short supply in the Yakima Basin, with rationing of irrigation water having occurred several times over the past 20 years, most recently in 2005.


“The good news is that we’re on the cusp of a number of water enhancement opportunities that should provide a profoundly different water future in the basin,” Bellon said. “Water leaders have embraced the goals of the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Management Plan to increase water storage and restore fish passage at the basin’s reservoirs.”


The integrated plan spells out a strategy for developing water markets to provide opportunities for new water uses in the Yakima River Basin through the acquisition of existing senior water rights.


“Until these long-term water strategies are in place, we’ll need to find a way to live within the resources available to us now,” Bellon said. “We’re inviting stakeholders to explore these options for water banks, water reserve programs and the sale and transfer of water rights to new uses. This will allow the basin’s agricultural and economic base to prosper while protecting its natural resources.”


For the last three decades, Yakima County Superior Court has been formally determining surface water rights through the adjudication process. The adjudication is near final and will codify senior surface water priority in the basin.


Beginning in 1999, Ecology put an administrative hold on requests for new groundwater permits in Kittitas, Yakima and parts of Benton County because of uncertainty about the legal availability of water.


At that time, Ecology in partnership with USGS, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Yakama Nation launched the study to better understand the interaction between groundwater and surface water and develop a hydraulic model to describe what impact new groundwater pumping would have at various times of the year in the basin.


The request for the study was part of a settlement with the Yakama Nation and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation resulting from appeals of several dozen groundwater permits Ecology issued in 1993 in the Moxee Basin. In those appeals, both the Nation and Reclamation claimed new groundwater pumping intercepted surface water supplies and threatened fisheries and their more senior water rights.


For more information go to

USGS Yakima Water Basin


Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan


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