Tribe, irrigation district: Black Rock reservoir too expensive

Yakima, Washington (AP) 4-08

Two influential Yakima River Basin groups have called on Congress to consider less expensive alternatives to the proposed Black Rock reservoir, dealing a blow to the $6.7 billion plan to build a massive dam east of Yakima.

In a joint letter to federal and state officials, representatives of the Yakama Nation and the Roza Irrigation District said new water storage studies should begin and other less-costly alternatives should be reconsidered.

Black Rock is a proposed 1.3 million acre-foot reservoir in the Black Rock Valley, 30 miles east of Yakima, that would be held back by a 600-foot-high dam. The reservoir would draw water from the pool behind Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia River to supply irrigators and meet fish needs in the Yakima River.

But the critical assessment by the two influential basin water constituencies could signal the death knell for construction of Black Rock, the Yakima Herald reported Thursday.

The tribe’s concerns carry weight with Congress, which must approve money for construction. The tribe fears money spent to build Black Rock could mean less would be available for other projects to restore threatened fish. The tribe also has concerns about potential contamination from the nearby Hanford nuclear reservation.

The 72,000-acre Roza Irrigation District would appear to have the most to gain from Black Rock, but the project’s price tag is too much to overcome.

“I think there are a lot of people who know anything about this see that the handwriting is on the wall. The project is too grand and too expensive,” Roza board Chairman Ric Valicoff said. “Let’s not lose the momentum for something that truly could work.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in January released a report that said Black Rock would return just 16 cents for every dollar spent to build and operate it, down from 28 cents in a study two years ago.

Black Rock supporters objected, saying the report failed to take into account billions in salmon recovery and recreational benefits.

In their five-page letter, the tribe and irrigation district say other options should be studied, such as expanding storage at an existing Cascades dam, fish ladders at basin dams, more conservation, a market-based approach to acquiring water and restoring habitat.

Valicoff said the district believes more cost-effective solutions will meet the basin’s needs. The Yakamas and the district believe a broad group of interested parties could devise a new package of measures to solve flow, passage and habitat issues in the basin and help agriculture, he said.

Black Rock supporters, including some of the Valley’s most prominent farmers and business leaders, have lobbied extensively for the Roza district and the Yakama Nation to endorse Black Rock to bolster their pitch to Congress.

Black Rock supporters said they were not surprised by the letter, signed by Tribal Council Chairman Ralph Sampson Jr. and Valicoff, that is critical of the way the $16 million storage study was conducted.

Sid Morrison, former congressman and chairman of the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance, said he is unsure what the groups are asking.

“We all want the most comprehensive answer,” he said. “As I read the study, Black Rock is the only one that answers all the questions and has enough benefits to spread the costs with no undue burden on anyone.”