Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Cory Wright: Ensuring Water for Kittitas County

Kittitas County in central Washington contains many of the headwaters of the Yakima River, as well as three of the basin’s five major water storage facilities. As in the rest of the basin, Kittitas County’s main water issues relate to providing sufficient water for crops, people, and fish. By promoting water marketing, funding water storage infrastructure, and establishing the Teanaway Community Forest, the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (YBIP) is helping solve that problem.

In this interview, Kittitas County Commissioner Cory Wright speaks with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about the county’s role in planning, funding, and implementing the YBIP.

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Cory Wright: I am the sixth generation of my family to live in the Kittitas Valley. We were some of the original settlers. My great-grandfather played a major role in Washington, DC, in building the Kittitas Reclamation District back in the 1920s and 1930s. I graduated from Ellensburg High School and Central Washington University, but I had always had the desire to go to sea and work in the maritime industry. I enrolled in California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, California, and had a 20-year career in the maritime industry, which took me all over the world. Eventually, my family and I moved back to Kittitas County in 2012. My wife and I both have family in Ellensburg. I was driving back and forth to Seattle, but my heart was always here, and in 2018, when my predecessor Paul Jewell resigned for a job with the Washington State Association of Counties, I went for the appointment and got it. I am now a county commissioner for Kittitas County and was assigned the water duties that Paul had previously executed. He was instrumental in putting together the YBIP. I had big shoes to fill and had to get up to speed quickly, but it’s been a great experience and I’ve tried to contribute as much as I can in as short a time as possible. 

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about the county and its top water issues.

Cory Wright: The county is at the headwaters of the Yakima River and contains three of the five major storage facilities for irrigation in the basin. Historically, snowpack has been considered the sixth storage facility. Our major issues are simply trying to provide enough water and making sure that a basin that is already overallocated has enough water for both irrigating crops and ensuring that there is enough in-stream flow for fish to survive. We’ve also had to be the state’s leader in managing groundwater pumping versus surface water rights. In Washington State, we have permit-exempt wells. For many years, our residents established wells and were able to pump water out for domestic use. However, in the late 2000s, a suit was brought against the county because the wells were affecting surface water. In response, we not only created a water bank, which the county did by purchasing surface water rights to offset groundwater use, but were also an early player in the development of the YBIP. We are making sure that we have enough storage to fulfill all the needs of our agricultural and recreational users and provide for the historic uses of the Yakama Nation for the purposes of fish restoration. 

Joshua Dill: How will the YBIP address some of the water issues that your county has?

Cory Wright: First off, the building of new storage is a gigantic part of the YBIP. We are at the headwaters of the Yakima, where the storage lies. By expanding storage facilities, we are addressing the agricultural needs of the next century as well as adapting to forecasted changes in winter precipitation from snow to rain. 

Another element of the YBIP is water marketing. Water is valued based on its place and its time. We need an agile water market that can adjust to the needs of users. This year, for the first time, we used our forward-mitigation water bank, which refers the surface water rights purchased by the county to offset domestic development over the next 20–40 years. We recognized that this water, while currently not needed on a permanent basis, could be leased out for a single year to provide emergency relief to growers at the end of the season while providing revenue that will be used by our water bank program to purchase additional surface water rights. We held an auction for blocks of water and sold multiple units to local growers. This year is the first time that’s ever been done, and it was successful. The Washington State Department of Ecology was very excited about it. It was a sort of test run, and we learned a lot of lessons. Instead of creating a long, drawn-out process that takes so long that at the end the user no longer needs the water, we wanted to make sure that we could get this done ahead of time. 

We’re doing a lot of habitat restoration, and not only for fish and riparian-area renewal. We’re also purchasing floodplains along the river, which has both habitat and economic benefits. The county recently concluded an agreement to reroute the river to more of its natural state rather than fighting it. This purchase will also allow us to provide new areas for our major local agricultural food processor, Twin City Foods. Our local wastewater plant couldn’t handle the quantity of its wastewater effluent, so it has used it instead to irrigate a crop circle in this area and grow hay. We’re going to be able to expand that through this floodplain acquisition and bring corn production back to this local facility. 

Joshua Dill: Will any major water storage infrastructure projects be required in your county?

Cory Wright: Yes, there are two that are ongoing right now. The first one is at Lake Cle Elum, where they’re putting in the largest fish helix structure in the nation. It’s a $100 million project. They’ve also raised the gates there to expand the lake by 14,400 acre-feet. That water is going to be purely be for in-stream flow for fish. That plan has been in place for quite a while. That project has the potential to produce an annual run of several hundred thousand sockeye salmon, which would be amazing for our upper-county economy. 

As far as agricultural storage farther up on Lake Kachess, we are in the process of preparing for the building of the Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant, which is going to provide our junior prorated districts access to previously unavailable water by pumping it below the dam during drought years. It’s important to note that this water will be for emergency use only. During a drought year, those districts will only get enough water from this project to bring them up to 70 percent of their allocations. Further, because it’s going to have to be pumped, they’ll also have to pay for power, making it expensive water. There are environmental reviews going on right now, and the county’s interested in making sure that the effects on the residents up there are mitigated. This project is going to supply our needs for many years to come. 

Another project is the Wymer Reservoir, which will be brand-new storage located on currently private land in southern Kittitas County. The reservoir will be around 160,000 acre-feet. The original plan was to pump the water for the reservoir from the river, but there have been new ideas about how to tunnel to use gravity flow, which would obviously be more economical. The family that owns the land really wants to see it available for future storage, but it also wants to maintain a working cattle ranch around it. The family members are longtime ranchers here, so it’s important to ensure that we’re able to preserve their use while getting this important facility built.

Joshua Dill: Where does the funding for infrastructure projects like the ones you mentioned come from? Do the county and the state share the costs?

Cory Wright: The county hasn’t contributed much funding toward the major infrastructure projects, as we simply don’t have the budget, although we’ve been actively supporting them. The drought relief pumping plant is actually a public-private partnership, one of the first of its kind. Roza Irrigation District is footing the bill for it to ensure that its growers have water for their high-value crops, including cherries, apricots, and hops. It’s a several-billion-dollar industry. 

We have worked to leverage county funds to support smaller projects while building stakeholder groups for larger projects. For example, the floodplain acquisition mentioned earlier was partially funded with county money but also partially funded with YBIP funds as well as state Floodplains by Design funds. We’re an important part of the process: Not only do we help shore up support, but we are also an entity that can work with local landowners who may otherwise be skeptical of organizations from outside this area. The YBIP is built on trust and relationships. 

Another huge benefit of the YBIP for the county was the acquisition of the Teanaway Community Forest, which consists of 50,000 acres of formerly private timberland that was purchased by the state as part of the 2013 YBIP initial legislation authorization. The forest serves multiple missions, including the protection of riparian habitat, recreation, and active timber management. It is overseen by an advisory committee of local, state, and tribal entities. The Teanaway Community Forest has proved to be a great benefit to Kittitas County for recreational tourism, and we are looking forward to the future as new trail connections are made between it and our urban areas. 

Joshua Dill: You mentioned that your predecessor did a lot of work in developing and passing the YBIP. Did you also play a role in that? 

Cory Wright: I felt a little bit like the rookie quarterback winning the Super Bowl. I was part of the contingent that traveled to Washington, DC, last year and helped to close the deal with our congressional contingent to get the funding in place as part of the lands bill last year. My predecessor, Paul Jewell, traveled there multiple times and came back more than once wondering if this was going to get done or not. But slow, steady pressure, combined with demonstrating the unity between parties that had previously been locked in conflict, eventually won the day. It was an easy job for me to step in when people had been working so well together for so long. I have also traveled to our state capitol several times to work on getting continued state funding for this. Again, with the relationships that Paul Jewell built, it was simply a matter of me stepping into his shoes and making sure that people understood that I shared the same sentiments and the same hopes for the county that Paul did.

Joshua Dill: How did federal, state, and county-level entities work together to develop the YBIP?

Cory Wright: From junior water districts to federal agencies, we all have a voice at the table and are working together to make sure that this plan moves forward. As in any family, there are internal squabbles, but those happen at the dinner table, not out in the front yard. What keeps this partnership so strong is that we all recognize the importance of preserving philosophical unity. If we bring our potential disagreements into the public light, it only serves to undermine the entire process. We’re good at working out our differences within our group in a constructive fashion.

Joshua Dill: What is necessary now to make sure that the YBIP is a success?

Cory Wright: We need to continue to show what it does on a local level, and not just for irrigation. A potential annual fishery of 300,000 sockeye salmon returning to the upper Yakima River represents a massive economic opportunity for our area. While all parties in this process are great friends, we are especially proud of our relationship with the Yakama Nation. It has become a great partner for Kittitas County. We both recognize that neither one of us can move forward without the success of the other. We’ve honored that commitment over the years, and so have they. The YBIP is not just about keeping crops watered; it enables recreational opportunities, and it ensures that places like Salmon La Sac, a point in the Cle Elum River named for the historic salmon harvest conducted there by the Yakama Nation, are now seeing returning fish spawning for the first time in over 100 years. We need to tell that story. Our story has to continue to be that we’re all winning as a result of our collaboration through the YBIP. 

Cory Wright is commissioner of Kittitas County. He can be contacted at cory.wright@co.kittitas.wa.us.