Climate change is destroying the Colorado River. There is a model to avoid the worst.

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

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

They understand the resentment among the seven states of the Colorado Basin, unable to agree on a plan for deep cuts in water use that the federal government has demanded to avert the disaster.

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

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The circumstances aren’t entirely parallel, but some western water experts point to the Yakima plan as a model for the kind of collaborative effort that needs to happen in Colorado right now.

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

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

“It’s a successful model that brings science and stakeholders to the table,” he said.

But it started from a strong sense of desperation.

Climate change and recurring drought have wreaked havoc with water supplies for irrigation managers and farmers in the Yakima Basin, one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions. Conservationists worried that habitats were being depleted, threatening species. Old dams built to store water had blocked the passage of fish, wiping out the trout and salmon that the Yakama Nation had harvested for centuries. In the event of a drought, water supplies to many farms were reduced.

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

Ron Van Gundy, director of the Rosa Irrigation District at the southern end of the basin, went to see Phil Rigdon, director of the Yakama Nation’s natural resources division. The two battled for years, mostly through lawyers. Both opposed the dam, but for different reasons.

“I was going to 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.”

The two met and eventually other stakeholders joined them in developing a plan to better manage the river. After many years of hand-wringing, the result was the Yakima Comprehensive Watershed Plan, a plan to ensure a reliable and resilient water supply for farmers, municipalities, habitats and fish, even in the face of continued warming and potentially greater drought. .

A decade after the plan, there are tens of millions of dollars worth of projects up and down the river designed to achieve those goals, including lining canals and other improvements to irrigation efficiency, increasing reservoir storage and removing barriers to 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, fisheries program manager for the Yakama Nation.

Now, hundreds of miles south and east, there’s a similar sense of desperation among Colorado users.

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

Any reductions would have to be negotiated between states that, more often than not, are fiercely protective of their share of the river’s water. These stocks were originally traded during wetter times a century ago.

The states have negotiated some major deals over the years, including one that called for cuts based on water levels in Lake Mead in lower Colorado that were first implemented last year. But the demand for much larger reductions has brought into focus perennial tensions between the upper watershed states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, which collectively use less than their share, and the lower watershed states. watershed of California, Nevada and Arizona. that use their full allocation or more.

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

The Yakima Basin is much smaller than the Colorado, with a population of 350,000 compared to the 40 million people who rely, to varying degrees, on the Colorado’s supply. While the arable land in the basin is significant (among other things, it produces about 75% of the country’s hops that lend a stress to countless beers and ales), agricultural production along the Colorado is far greater.

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

All of this has some water managers in Colorado doubting that the Yakima plan could be a grand model.

“The Colorado River is orders of magnitude more complicated 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 for a group of stakeholders to sit down and agree on a big solution.”

But those familiar with the Yakima plan say the plan’s founding principle, of shared sacrifice and cooperation between groups that were often adversaries, can be applied anywhere.

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

The Yakima River has a long history of overuse, dating back to the first white settlers who arrived 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 built. Water scarcity quickly became a problem, especially in dry years, leading to decades of conflict between users.

As in Colorado, there have been previous efforts to ensure a steady supply, especially after droughts in the 1930s and 40s. After another severe drought in 1977, state and federal officials developed a “watershed improvement” plan to try to improve fish passage.

But it wasn’t enough. First, the droughts kept coming, said Urban Eberhart, who grew up on a farm in the basin and now manages the Kittitas Reclamation District in the northern part.

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

In 2010, the federal Bureau of Reclamation commissioned a study of the basin, looking at how it would fare as the world continued to warm. The findings gave impetus to the effort to develop a plan.

“What we went through from 1977 to 2009 was nothing compared to where we were headed,” Eberhart said. There was a growing sense that drastic action was needed. “We won’t recognize this economy or this ecosystem if we don’t act.”

With so much information to discuss, meetings about the plan were intense and time-consuming, Eberhart said. But this had a benefit: Pressing for time, participants began taking breaks and meals together.

“Pretty soon, over time, all of us who were very suspicious of each other would talk and it turned into friendship, trust and respect,” he said.

Rigdon said that now, as likely as not, a project receives widespread support, even from groups that might not benefit as much from it. Although challenges remain, he said, “We understood what the other side needed. And it’s not the other side anymore.”

The fruits of these relationships can be seen across the basin, in projects that often serve more than one purpose and benefit more than one stakeholder group.

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

In his irrigation district, Eberhart led successful efforts to use canals to carry water to long-dried streams to restore fish.

There are many projects, under construction and proposed, to increase water storage to help overcome dry years. And in the city of Yakima itself, Nelson Dam, an old diversion dam on a tributary, was removed, replaced by an engineered channel that will allow fish and boat passage, redistribute sediment through the river and reduce flooding, all while continue to divert water for the city’s needs.

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

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