Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Reclamation’s Role in Developing the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan

As the federal agency responsible for the Yakima and Columbia Basin irrigation projects in central Washington State, the Bureau of Reclamation plays a key role in implementing the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (YBIP). For decades, Reclamation has been seeking ways to increase water supplies and storage in the basin. Since 2009, Reclamation has participated in bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, including state and federal agencies, irrigation districts, the Yakama Nation, and environmental groups, to collaborate on the congressionally authorized Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project (YRBWEP).

In this interview, Wendy Christensen, Reclamation’s YRBWEP manager, speaks with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about Reclamation’s role in developing and implementing the YBIP.

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

Wendy Christensen: I’ve worked for Reclamation for 29 years. I began at the Technical Service Center in Denver, Colorado, and worked there for about a year in an engineering rotation program that had a field detail in Yakima, Washington. I really enjoyed being out in the field, seeing where water gets delivered and how everything works. A lot of construction was going on at the time. I spent 17 years at the Umatilla-Yakima construction office in Yakima, Washington, and was primarily involved in working on design and construction management. When the Umatilla-Yakima construction office was moved to the Pacific Northwest Regional Office in Boise, Idaho, I was asked to transfer to the Upper Columbia Area Office in Yakima, where I started working on large water resource planning studies under the former area manager, Jerry Kelso. We were working on a Yakima basin storage feasibility study with the Washington State Department of Ecology, where I met Derek Sandison. The storage feasibility study focused on water storage and delivery alternatives for Yakima Project irrigators. I credit Jerry and Derek for convening the YRBWEP Workgroup. Several others, including Ron Van Gundy of Roza Irrigation District and Phil Ridgon of the Yakama Nation, also had a hand in making it work.

Kris Polly: What was the role of Reclamation in conceiving of and developing the YBIP? 

Wendy Christensen: Significant droughts that began in the late 1970s were the impetus for the YRBWEP. It had become apparent that a solution to the water shortage problem would require a comprehensive basinwide plan, not just additional storage. 

Kris Polly: What is unique about the role of Reclamation as a federal agency in developing and implementing the YBIP?

Wendy Christensen: The Yakima Field Office manages the Yakima Project, including water storage and management activities. The YBIP emerged from collaboration between Reclamation and Ecology that focused primarily on ecosystem restoration that could also provide potential solutions to irrigation water supply. At a time when Ecology and Reclamation were working on large water resource projects, we began to understand the need to develop a comprehensive water plan for the future. 

Since 1945, when a judge ruled that irrigation districts that were built as part of the Yakima Project would get a proratable share of their water supply, we’ve been looking for additional storage. Reclamation manages 1 million acre-feet of storage, supplies 2.3 million acre-feet through efficiencies, and also draws from the snowpack that we call our sixth reservoir. Still, in a drought year, we are unable to meet everyone’s needs.

The planning activities that began in YRBWEP Phases I and II eventually evolved into the YBIP, also known as YRBWEP Phase III. When the workgroup was assembled, Reclamation and Ecology invited the entities and water resource managers most affected by drought-year supplies: the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, federal, state and local government agencies, irrigation districts, and environmental groups. 

Kris Polly: Would you say that Reclamation guides the cooperation of the other stakeholders?

Wendy Christensen: Reclamation is the lead entity for the federal government, and Ecology is the lead entity for the State of Washington. We combine our roles as sponsors of the YBIP to facilitate the workgroup and define what can be done through the YRBWEP legislation. The workgroup provides an opportunity for Reclamation and Ecology to better educate the affected interests on engineering, economic, environmental, and legal factors that influence our decisions on comprehensive solutions as they are identified. Many of these workgroup entities, by virtue of their mission, are already immersed in activities associated with implementing the YBIP. 

Kris Polly: Would Reclamation be the entity to oversee any new storage infrastructure? 

Wendy Christensen: Not necessarily. The John Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act passed in March 2019 authorized participating proratable irrigation entities in the Yakima River basin to finance, construct, operate, and maintain the Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant. We are currently working with Roza Irrigation District, the Wapato Irrigation Project, Kennewick Irrigation District, and Kittitas Reclamation District—the proratable entities—to determine what that storage would look like, but the pumping plant would not be owned by Reclamation. 

Kris Polly: Is Reclamation the main source of funding for the plan as a whole? 

Wendy Christensen: I would say that Ecology is the main funding source. State legislation passed in 2013 stated that the State of Washington would fund 50 percent of the YBIP and the remaining 50 percent would be funded by federal, local, and private entities. The state has contributed more than $200 million to date. Reclamation has contributed approximately $150 million, which has been used for the Cle Elum Fish Passage and Reintroduction Project and ongoing YRBWEP Phase II activities, such as habitat restoration, tributary enhancement, and water conservation.

Kris Polly: What is needed to make the YBIP a success? 

Wendy Christensen: Adequate funding is important, as is continued basinwide support. This plan is based on the relationships that we’ve developed over the last 10 years. I’ve always been amazed by this workgroup. We really have great participation. 

Kris Polly: How long has the group been meeting? 

Wendy Christensen: We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. Our first meeting was in June 2009.

Kris Polly: What kind of official status does the workgroup have?

Wendy Christensen: It’s a grassroots workgroup. Reclamation and Ecology do things like prepare environmental impact statements, engineering designs, and technical reports, but we get feedback and input from the workgroup. Over the years, we’ve built up trust and have worked in a spirit of collaboration and coordination. There are many projects being implemented in the Yakima River basin because this workgroup has come together and stayed together. 

About 33 habitat projects and 24 agricultural conservation projects have been implemented since 2013. That is significant, because before the YBIP, only a few projects were getting done. One of the purposes of the new legislation is to have self-sustaining, harvestable populations of fisheries in the Yakima River basin. The hope is that fish species will recover to the point that they are self-sustaining.

Kris Polly: What lessons has Reclamation learned from this process that can be applied to future projects in other regions? 

Wendy Christensen: For a comprehensive ecosystem restoration project, it is important to stay focused and avoid the trap of starting over on projects that have already been studied. It is also important that all necessary interested parties are involved in a cooperative, idea-sharing structure that stays well informed about the engineering, economic, and social realities of complex projects. It’s also important that the people representing the various interests are committed to solving the issues. What is needed is an effective way to educate participants to become knowledgeable about the issues and then keep them involved by building relationships and making sustained progress on projects. Success breeds success. 

Wendy Christensen is the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. She can be contacted at gchristensen@usbr.gov. For more information on the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, visit www.usbr.gov/pn/programs/yrbwep/2011integratedplan/index.html.