Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

The Power of Coordination: Senator Judy Warnick on the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan

The simplest way to describe the aims of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (YBIP) is to say that it ensures water for people, fish, and agriculture. However, the means it employs to pursue that goal are diverse. They include dam improvements, water conveyance, and even the preservation of tracts of land for conservation and recreation, like the Teanaway Community Forest.

In this interview, Washington State Senator Judy Warnick tells Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about her role in developing the YBIP and how she sees it making a difference in her central Washington district.

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

Judy Warnick: I grew up on a dairy farm with 55 milking cows, which was an average size for the time. Northeast Washington, where I grew up, had no irrigation of any real significance. It wasn’t until I got married and moved to the Columbia basin that I learned about how important irrigation was. The agricultural land in the Columbia basin is dependent on water because it was developed out of sage brush. In fact, the farm that my husband and I now live on and farm or lease out was sage brush when my in-laws bought it back in the 1960s. 

I never thought I would be in the Washington State Senate. When I was a teenager, I met U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. I was very impressed with him. I realized that he was just a regular person who made a big difference in Washington State with his work in the United States Senate. Later on, I was very involved in trade associations, farm associations, 4H, the Future Farmers of America, and business associations. I took a chance and ran for office in 2006 and was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives. I spent 8 years there before running for a position in the Washington State Senate that had opened in our district. Because of my background in farming and because my district is primarily dependent on agriculture, I asked to serve on the agricultural committee. I have been in either the House or Senate agriculture committees my entire term. 

Joshua Dill: Where is your district, and how is it affected by the YBIP?

Judy Warnick: My district starts in Kittitas County, at the top of the Cascade Mountains, the range that bisects our state, and goes all the way across to Spokane County. It’s a long district that covers two full counties and parts of two more counties and three congressional districts.

Lincoln County, in the east of my district, has little irrigation at this point. We are working through another major program, the Columbia Basin Project, to get surface water for the farmers there. Right now, they rely on wells that are depleting the Odessa aquifer. We’re working to find money to get surface water from the Columbia River to them. There’s enough water in the Columbia River for more to be taken out without harming existing users, wildlife, or fish. 

Kittitas County, in the west of my district, contains the headwaters of the Yakima River. That’s why I got involved in the YBIP—to protect the river and keep irrigation in the Yakima basin viable. About a year after I was elected, in 2007–2008 the Washington State Department of Ecology imposed a moratorium on drilling-permit-exempt domestic wells in the Kittitas County area because of the lack of water. It’s been a difficult few years for finding solutions for water for domestic wells, irrigation, and fish. 

Joshua Dill: What was your role in developing and passing the YBIP?

Judy Warnick: When I was serving on the Capital Budget Committee in the House, I was the committee’s ranking member, representing the Republican caucus, and I worked closely with other stakeholders on the YBIP. The Capital Budget Committee was asked to fund some of the projects and infrastructure for the YBIP. What impressed me the most and made me interested in making the plan work was the variety of people who came and presented the application for funds to the Capital Budget Committee. There were representatives of the tribes, representatives of the irrigation districts, representatives of local governments, farmers, people from the American Rivers Association, and conservationists and environmentalists. I was impressed by their willingness to sit down and speak with people from a wide variety of backgrounds who represented a wide variety of interests. Urban Eberhardt, who was one of the key people who made the plan work, told me, “We were able to bring people together who wouldn’t even talk to each other at the beginning of this process. Now we feel comfortable sitting down and having a beer with each other.” That brought me some real hope as a representative from the upper Yakima basin. 

In conjunction with the tribes and the federal government, we’ve been able to get more fish introduced to some of the lakes and headwaters of the Yakima basin, which include Lake Cle Elum, Lake Keechelus, and Lake Kachess. The small dam at Lake Cle Elum has been changed and upgraded. Salmon have been introduced to the lake, and the dam has been reengineered so that fish can both get out of the lake and get back up again to spawn. That was done in conjunction with the Yakama Nation and other tribes farther north. It’s been enlightening to see what coordination can do, how it can help people and fish, and how people can get together and coordinate to do things that they couldn’t do by themselves.

Joshua Dill: What can you tell me about the development of public awareness and support for the YBIP?

Judy Warnick: It took many years to plan the YBIP. It was not done in one budget session. It took time for the organizations to get together and talk to each other to coordinate the implementation of the plan, even before requesting funding from the legislature. Public awareness of the YBIP increased when the legislature held meetings and tours to study it, especially during its first year of public funding. The public also became more aware of the YBIP as more public land became available for recreational use and forest conservation.

Public awareness was heightened especially by the establishment of the Teanaway Community Forest because it was a tangible project that benefited people directly. The community forest was developed on a large tract of land that had been selectively logged. The timber company that owned the property wanted to sell it because it would not be able to harvest more timber in the near future. The company’s plan was to sell parcels for housing development. However, we worked with environmentalists and recreationists to find a way for the state to use YBIP funds to purchase it for other uses. That property is now called the Teanaway Community Forest. It is the first community forest that Washington State has developed. It’s been turned into a recreation area that people can use for a variety of purposes; there are also still grazing opportunities for cattle there. There is even a pack of wolves in the more remote sections of the forest. The Teanaway area contains much of the headwaters of the Yakima River. It is comanaged by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

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

Judy Warnick: I’m hoping that we can continue to help the federal government understand the need for it to do its part, especially with infrastructure for irrigation systems. Our farmers do a great job and our districts do a great job in helping to support those particular systems. Roza Irrigation District is the main district at the headwaters of the Yakima River and covers Yakima County. We have to continue to work with the irrigation districts, farmers, and developers to address potential changes in water needs and uses.

In the legislature, we look at the at the budget every year through Ecology’s budget asks. It is funded and overseen through Ecology’s Office of Columbia River because the Yakima flows into the Columbia. 

Joshua Dill: What lessons has the legislature learned from the YBIP that can be applied to water issues elsewhere in the state?

Judy Warnick: I hope we have learned that working together is much easier than trying to do it individually. We have a strong tribal interest in this state. The members of Indian tribes are active politically, and at least two of our elected officials—a senator and a member of the House—are tribal members. We need to be able to talk to them, and we need to do it outside of the courtroom. I use the YBIP as an example of what to do. Through it, we have successfully developed good programs for all the different interests in the basin. 

My advice would be to sit down, take your time, do it right, and talk to the legislators and the governor’s office about the budget. I really think the YBIP has been a success, but we need to keep its goals in mind because we don’t want to see it changed or not funded. It will take a while for all the projects to occur. Things like the Teanaway Community Forest will take a while to make it on their own. Hopefully, most of the projects we’ve been funding will be successful as well. 

Judy Warnick is a Washington State senator. She can be contacted at judy.warnick@leg.wa.gov or at (360) 786-7624.