Cascade Water Alliance turns 15, hears of need to ensure water for future

Will Stelle, administrator for the northwest region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Will Stelle, administrator for the northwest region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, spoke about California's drought crisis during the Cascade Water Alliance's 15th anniversary luncheon on Thursday, May 15.
— image credit: Brandon Macz

The Cascade Water Alliance celebrated its 15th anniversary May 15 with a luncheon that highlighted the collaborative efforts of Eastside cities to ensure their water needs continue to be met decades into the future — the type of teamwork that has been needed in California to tackle a severe drought across the state.

"You can count on the fact that this is going to happen and we need to get ready for it," said Will Stelle, administrator for the northwest region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service and CWA keynote speaker. "… We're not ready."

Stelle said it was apparent 2014 would be a disaster for California in terms of drought by January.

"What you could hear was real fear, fear that they were going to lose control of the (Sacramento-San Joaquin River) Delta," he said.

California reservoirs are all at 50 percent or lower on average this year, with no snow pack in the Sierra Nevadas expected to alleviate the crisis. Wetter weather in February and March helped, but what Stelle said is critical in keeping ahead of drought is cooperation between fisheries, water service operators and water quality managers, and being able to change how the system is operated in real time.

"You don't have the luxury of time to fiddle around," Stelle said. "… Don't get into chasing errors because you'll spend a lot of time doing it."

While California had a 1,000-page biological opinion regarding joint operations for how to manage reservoirs, pumping rates, gate operations, salinity control and more, Stelle said in the face of a drought there is not much time for critical assessments.

Stelle said he took a lot of guff when looking at saving spring chinook salmon from dying off while also allowing temporary increases in water exports out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. He said its important that, even in the face of opposition, stakeholders stand by their decisions and be collectively prepared to take greater risks.

Elaine Kraft, communications director for Cascade Water Alliance, said Stelle painted a dire picture of what California is facing, but another message she received from his address is that the CWA is on the right path to ensuring it is prepared to meet future water supply demands on the Eastside, and lucky such a need won't be soon.

The Cascade Water Alliance bought Lake Tapps from Puget Sound Energy in 2009 for a future water supply and storage. Member cities include Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Redmond, Tukwila, and the Sammamish Plateau Water & Sewer District and Skyway Water & Sewer District. Kraft said those cities are not expected to have supply issues for decades, which means Lake Tapps will continue to be monitored for quality and used for recreation. The CWA is currently working toward setting future water rates.

"We're trying to stabilize our rates for the long-term," Kraft said.

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