Kachess Lake lies roughly 60 miles to the east of Bellevue, tucked away inside a quiet valley off of Interstate 90 on Snoqualmie Pass. The serene lake is lined by evergreen trees towering above popular campgrounds and private cabins, but the calm lake has become the focal point of a debate that touches on issues of recreation and water management in the state.
Kachess is one of five major lakes in the state that provide water to six water districts stretching from Easton to the Tri-Cities, as well as massive agriculture operations in Eastern Washington. It is also a convenient getaway for Puget Sound campers due to its relative proximity to major metropolitan centers.
Now some of those vacationers, as well as area firefighters, are raising an alarm about a proposal that they say will compromise the livlihood of the community that surrounds the lake.
It all started in 2009, when the state Department of Ecology and the federal Bureau of Reclamation brought together a group of stakeholders to study the future of water resources in the Yakima River Basin. It found that current water output was not enough to meet future demand for fish and wildlife, irrigation and municipal water supply.
An environmental impact study was then conducted, which outlined ways to meet the growing demand for water. The proposed solution was to build a pump facility in Kachess Lake that would, in drought years, pump an additional 200,000 acre-feet from the lake — or enough water to cover 200,000 acres in one foot of water. While this would provide water for irrigation districts and junior water rights holders, it would drop the level of Kachess Lake by an additional 80 feet. An adjacent project would build a pipe from the nearby Keechelus Lake to refill the basin, and the study stated the lake would refill after a few years.
This has led to concerns from cabin owners like Ann Lewis of Bellevue. If the pumps are activated during a drought year, the lower water level could leave campers high and dry and make the lake less accessible.
“It’s a very popular place,” she said. “We’re trying to get the word out.”
Robert Angrisano is a volunteer firefighter at Kachess Lake and Snoqualmie Pass and lives in Fall City. He is concerned that if the lake is lowered during a drought year, its water will be inaccessible to firefighters. During drought years the water level is lowered by 60 feet, which still allows firetrucks to get close enough to pump water out. If it is dropped further, Angrisano said the pumps are not powerful enough to get water out. Additionally, the lake bed turns from a relatively solid mix of gravel and rocks to silt at lower levels, which trucks sink into.
Fire District 8 keeps around 100,000 gallons of water on reserve but one truck alone can pump out 750 gallons a minute. It provides enough water to quickly knock down a fire, but if there is a major fire nearby and there is no air support to haul water from other nearby lakes, it would run out quickly.
Nearby wells could also go dry if the lake is lowered even temporarily, Angrisano said. If wells do go dry, more than 160 homes could be red-tagged and unlivable under state law. The environmental impact statement also states that lowering of the lake could lead to a decrease in aquifers adjacent to the reservoir, possibly leading to a decrease in water supply to wetlands, springs, streams and wells, although these impacts would be temporary.
“I don’t think they have any clue how devastating something like this would be,” Angrisano said.
Angrisano isn’t opposed to a pump station, but that he wants firefighting kept in mind. This could mean building additional pump stations with pipes reaching to the bottom of the lake that would be activated if needed. This proposal did not make it into the most recent supplement to the environmental study, which was released in April.
“I’m willing to support anything that makes sense, but I just don’t see where this solution makes sense,” Angrisano said. “I think there’s other sources of water that can be accessible.”
Another 70 miles east of Kachess Lake lies the Yakima Valley, an agricultural powerhouse for the state. On a recent morning, Roza Irrigation District manager Scott Revell was driving around the valley. The district stretches 100-miles and irrigates some 72,000 acres. It is the only district so far that has partnered with the departments of Ecology and Recology to fund the drought pump.
The Yakima Valley produces roughly 75 percent of all hops used in the United States and last week, the young perennial plants were shooting out of the ground and up trellises. While the valley is often used as a marketing brand in Puget Sound, the food produced here makes its way into bottles and plates across the state and beyond.
“If they have beer in their fridge, there are Roza hops in their refrigerator,” Revell said as he navigated the district’s single SUV through winding orchard roads.
Farmers in the Roza Irrigation District produce around $1 billion in a good year, Revell said. During the 2015 drought, the state pegged economic losses at around $76 million. Most farms in the district are still family owned, which means they often don’t have as much capital to see them through a bad year. Had the amount of water available to the district dropped even a few more percentage points, it could have caused an additional $100 million in damages, Revell said.
Because of this, Revell said farmers are willing to pay for the $200 million drought pump project at Kachess Lake. It breaks down to roughly an additional $100 per acre of irrigated land, Revell said.
“They see that as very affordable water insurance during a drought,” he said.
Over the course of 100 years, the cost of the floating pump station would be around $282 million, possibly reaching up to 50 percent more. The initial construction is expected to cost around $200 million. These figures are much lower than the roughly $150 million cheaper than two other alternatives proposed in the environmental impact study, which would construct on-shore pumping stations.
However, many of the fruit crops grown in the Roza Irrigation District require water later in the season, oftentimes when irrigation is scarcer. While the district has taken strides since a 1977 drought to greatly improve water efficiency, they are still subject to having their water curtailed. Rights for water from lakes in the system are allocated in a three tiered system, which is different than many places in the West.
Districts that existed before the formation of the first iteration of the Yakima Project in 1905 are senior water rights holders, which never have their flow reduced as long as water remains. The Roza Irrigation District is a pro-ratable water rights holder, meaning they receive less water during a drought. While this is slightly better than junior rights holders who have their water cut off first, it still creates uncertainty for growers in the district. The drought pump would provide additional security for farmers.
Revell said he understands Kachess Lake neighbors’ concerns but said both firefighting and access problems could be solved. An extended dock could be built to allow fire trucks as well as boaters to reach the water even when it was drawn down. Additionally, Revell said water issues could be solved as well. Even if the lake is drawn down, it would still be around 300 feet deep, which would leave adequate space for fish habitat, he said. Fish biologists worked on the environmental study and the Roza Irrigation District has had a fish biologist on staff since the 1980s.
“This notion that they’re draining down the last drop and the last fish will be flopping around in the mud is not accurate,” he said. “We’ve got the facts straight on our side.”
A comment period on the supplemental environmental impact statement runs through July 11, after which Ecology and Reclamation will issue a decision. If a pump is approved, construction could begin within 18 months.