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Reservoir Series Part II: To Help With Drought, One Plan Wants To Drain A Lake

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Courtney Flatt
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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.

Bill Campbell: “This was created by glaciers over millennia. That created a lake that was 400-feet deep at its deepest.”

The view of the crystal blue lake sparkles from large bay windows in his home. In the summertime boaters line up at a nearby dock early — around sunrise — to find a spot to park their tow vehicles close to the popular lake.

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 sort of unexpected twist — reservoirs are being proposed for Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and Yakima Basin. But here at Kachess Lake these cabins won’t be flooded for expanded storage capacity. They could soon be sitting on mudflats.

Campbell: “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 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 into the Kachess River. Eventually, that water will flow downriver and into canals that growers use to irrigate their crops.

Wendy Christensen is with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. She says water from Kachess Lake could play a big role in drought years for fruit growers and other irrigators.

Christensen:  “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.”

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 says 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 says, Kachess Lake will need to be partially drained.

Christensen: “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.”

Grant Learned also owns a home on Kachess Lake. He says more steps need to be taken before the massive 5 billion dollar plan takes shape. For one thing, he says people need to start conserving more water.

Learned: “If we might need more water, how about if we simply use less and require people to use less?”

He says, draining Kachess Lake should not be the first step.

copyright, 2015 EarthFix