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Time to revisit Black Rock project

Yakima Valley farmers have the same problem as their California counterparts: There just isn’t enough water for crops, migrating fish and people.

In California this year, an estimated 564,000 acres of prime cropland will be left unplanted because of the fourth straight year of drought. Economists at the University of California-Davis estimate the drought has caused $2.7 billion in economic losses and cost 18,000 farmworkers their jobs.

The water shortage is so acute in California that Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 25 percent reduction, which has even forced many expensive homes’ owners to rip out their manicured lawns and plant desert plants among sand and rocks.

There are similarities between California and Washington.

Just as the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are the heart of California’s north central irrigation network, the Yakima River is the main artery flowing through one of our state’s prime growing regions.

With snowpack in the Cascades at a dismal 10 percent of normal, Yakima farmers are struggling to stretch available water supplies during the upcoming summer months when irrigation water is most needed. The situation has once again prompted state and federal officials to consider adding water storage capacity.

Considering that, it is time to dust off the Black Rock project, which, as originally conceived, would transfer spring runoff water from the Columbia River in central Washington uphill to a new reservoir east of Yakima.

It would be a mammoth undertaking. Under one proposal, the Black Rock Dam itself could be 750 feet high — taller than Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation determined that the Black Rock Reservoir would be too costly. The estimated cost then was about $5.69 billion, but it could potentially climb to as high as $7.7 billion.

At the time, the Bureau reported that Black Rock would return 13 cents for every dollar spent to build and operate.

However, an independent impact study by the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance (YSBA) found that Black Rock would generate $8 billion in economic benefits from agriculture, tourism and construction jobs. YBSA figured an additional $3.5 billion would be generated in recreational opportunities alone, a factor not considered by the Bureau of Reclamation.

There is another reason to revive the plan. Over the last eight years, massive amounts of wind generation have come on line, which means, in addition to an irrigation lake, Black Rock could become a pumped storage facility generating hydropower from wind power.

Here is how it would work. Columbia River water would be pumped over the hill to Black Rock when wind electricity is abundant and costs are lower. The water could be sent back down the hill run through hydropower generating turbines and empty back into Columbia River at peak electricity demand periods.

A pumped storage project using wind-generated electricity would provide a storage battery for energy and would benefit fish, agriculture, municipal needs and economic stability while leaving a reliable water supply in the Yakima River.

Integrating wind and hydro works.

For example, Spain’s electric utility, Iberdrol, is using wind power to pump water up to storage reservoirs. When it rushes downhill through power turbines, Iberdrol is currently generating more electricity than Bonneville Dam - and more is on the way.

Using this same technology, Black Rock could become more than just an irrigation reservoir; it would ease the demand to divert water from the Yakima River for irrigation, leaving more water in the river, which would raise stream flows, which in turn would improve salmon and steelhead habitat.

It is a concept worth looking at that could make Black Rock economically feasible while providing everyone with much-needed additional fresh water.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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