As summer drought conditions persist and temperatures continue to rise, environmental organizations are looking at options to protect local streams.

Trout Unlimited is working with the Washington Department of Ecology to seek irrigators who are willing to forgo late season irrigation. According to a press release from Trout Unlimited, irrigators who participate will be paid to reduce diversions or completely stop diverting from Yakima River tributaries starting on or after Aug. 1, 2019. Water users interested in participating must have a valid water right and must be able to demonstrate water use within the past five years.

Due to low water supplies, junior water rights holders in the Yakima Basin are currently receiving 69 percent of their allocation. Total basin water storage at 71.3 percent of average. The press release stated that tributaries to the Yakima River are experiencing low flow drought conditions like those experienced in 2015.

Trout Unlimited Yakima Basin Project Manager Erin Eaton said the goal of the program is not necessarily to achieve a certain flow target, but to focus on water rights holders along smaller tributaries of the Yakima River in both Upper and Lower County.

“Those tend to be the ones that either dry up or have the lowest flows first,” she said.

Eaton said low water flow hinders fish passage and increases in higher water temperatures, causing higher stress for most of the fish that are in those tributaries.

“Any water is good water, especially when it comes to those smaller tributaries,” she said. “We’re not even overlooking stock water rights.”

While the program places an equal emphasis on tributaries within the watershed, Eaton said there is no set goal on the number of irrigators who sign up to participate.

“Any contribution is a good contribution,” she said. “If it’s one person or 20 people, it’s going to make a difference.”

This is not the first time drought water leasing has been utilized to protect area tributaries. Eaton said a similar program was utilized during the 2015 drought. She said that program got off to a late start, due in part to the formal drought declaration coming later in the season.

“With that one, we did get some good water to put back into streams,” she said. “Mainly it was with known irrigators who we already knew would be willing to do that. We didn’t really do much of a push in 2015.”

This year’s push has seen a limited response, and Eaton said it could be partially due to weather conditions.

“We had such a cold June compared to previous years,” she said. “As we get later on in the summer and things get a little hotter, I think we’ll notice the severity of the drought and how we are fairly similar to 2015 already.”

Eaton said certain tributaries like Manastash Creek are already running at lower levels than they were during the 2015 drought event, and that she expects more interest in the project to develop as irrigators notice the lower water levels.

“They can make a difference now, which will help minimize the impact that they may visually see later in the season,” she said.

As the drought declaration extends to December 2019, Eaton said the program is looking at stock water rights along with irrigation rights. Eaton said the Department of Ecology has a set of funds set aside specifically for the project. There is no set rate for compensation, and Eaton said that the program will work with irrigators to determine a valuation of what their water rights are worth.

“Each tributary is just a little bit different,” she said. “Each right is a little bit different. Some of them, their water right curtails a little bit earlier in the season, especially with the fact that we do have prorationed water.”

Eaton said her organization and others in the region are working hard to ensure that local streams and tributaries continue to have water in future drought years.

“Having water instream in the future is going to become extremely important, especially with climate change and as temperatures become hotter and our summers become drier,” she said. “Those streams and tributaries become really important for cold water habitat for fish.”


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