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The Black Rock Project

 

The Black Rock Reservoir proposes to improve water supply for the Yakima Basin, and to provide important environmental, economic and recreational benefits for all of Central Washington.

 

The proposal involves the inter-basin transfer of water from the Columbia River to the Yakima River Basin. When flows in the Columbia are high, water would be pumped and stored in Black Rock. Water from Black Rock would then be available when needed for agricultural and other uses.  Water flows in the Yakima River would be kept stable, and there would be a lot more water left in the river for fish.

 

The Black Rock Project idea has existed for over ten years.  In the late 1990s Benton County funded a serious study to determine the feasibility of the idea.  The Yakima Basin Storage Alliance (YBSA) was then formed, and began to seek federal and state funding to conduct the feasibility study currently underway, which is expected to be completed in 2008.

 

In addition to addressing agricultural water needs, the Black Rock Reservoir would also provide environmental, economic and recreational benefits for all of Central Washington.  According to a recent Benton County report, Black Rock may add over $200 million to the economy each year, not including economic activity associated with recreation.  Located thirty-five minutes west of the Tri-Cities, 30 minutes east of Yakima, and in the heart of Washington’s wine country, Black Rock would be one of the largest flat water recreation sites in Eastern Washington.

 

There is no organized opposition to the Black Rock Project at this time, but critics have raised questions about environmental impacts and projected costs of the project.  Black Rock would cost at least $4 billion, and citizens are necessarily concerned that this money be well spent.  Some critics feel that the benefits to the Yakima Valley’s economy do not justify the scale and expense of the project, and that the money would be better invested elsewhere in smaller projects and conservation efforts.

 

While it is true that the Yakima Basin leads the West in water conservation, YBSA argues that improved management techniques alone can’t provide a lasting solution.  Black Rock Reservoir would be a long term solution.

 

The arguments in favor of Black Rock center around agriculture.  As the foundation of the Yakima Valley’s economy and communities, agriculture generates over $1.3 billion in direct sales each year and employs over 50,000 people.  Drought and inadequate water supply systems have both personal and financial impacts – in addition to lost jobs, the 2001 drought cost agriculture $250 million, and cost the broader economy $750 million.

 

Nearly 100 years ago, an ambitious network of canals, tunnels, dams, and six mountain reservoirs was built in the Yakima Valley, and almost half a million acres of desert was turned into fertile, productive farm land.  This water conservation and delivery system served a population of under 50,000.  Today, the population that depends on that system exceeds 500,000.  Growth and development lead to increasing demands on a diminishing water supply, and changing climate patterns have led to decreasing Cascade snow packs and further diminishing of the stored water supply.  All these factors have resulted in a crisis situation in the Yakima Valley.

 

Local farmers feel the pressure in their irrigation allotments, which are in jeopardy.  There have been three serious droughts in the last twelve years.  These conditions cannot sustain high quality crops and valuable returns for the farmers.  Black rock would guarantee 70% water allocation to junior water rights holders (as compared with 34% in 2005).

 

The Black Rock Valley lies between the Hanford nuclear reservation and the Yakama Nation reservation.  The lake would more than double existing reservoir storage in the Yakima Basin, and would transform a barren valley into a new recreation landmark.

 

Water would be pumped from the Columbia River, downstream from Priest Rapids Dam, over or through Umtanum Ridge.  One alternative would be to build a pump station on the Columbia River which would pump water more than 1,000 vertical feet up and over the Ridge and into the storage basin.  Initially more expensive, another option is to tunnel through the ridge rather than going over it.  This may be a better long term option because it would allow water to be released from Black Rock during low irrigation demand periods and sent back to the Columbia River to power a hydro-electric plant.

 

Black Rock Dam would be one of the largest dams of its kind in the world, at about 600 feet high and with a capacity of 1.7 million acre-feet of water.  The cost of construction is estimated at $1.6 billion, or $1,100 per acre-foot.  The latest major reservoir built in the west, in Diamond Valley California, was completed in 1996 and cost $2,400 per acre-foot.

 

One major environmental concern is that the groundwater from Black Rock might flow under Hanford nuclear reservation and become contaminated.  Preliminary studies have concluded that the groundwater actually flows to the south of Hanford, avoiding contaminated areas, but this needs to be confirmed.  Research is currently underway to answer this question.

 

In a January 10 2006 article, the Associated Press reported that the federal government is putting a hold on plans to ship more hazardous nuclear waste to Hanford for storage.  Hanford is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.  A new environmental review, to be completed by 2008, will re-analyze the effects of waste storage on groundwater.  This information should help determine whether water from Black Rock would be clean and safe.

 

Sid Morrison, former Washington State Representative (1966-1974), Senator (1974-1980), and the current Chair of the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance, describes Black Rock by saying, “We just want to borrow some water from the Columbia when it’s not needed and then return it in kind, with fish.”

 

On March 10th, 2005, Governor Gregoire renewed her support for making Black Rock Reservoir a reality.  The Black Rock Project has captured the attention of many people who care about Central Washington’s economic health, and the continuation of the area’s agricultural contribution to the state, the nation, and the world.

 

For more information on the Black Rock Project, visit the website of the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance (YBSA).
 
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