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State Buying Up Water Rights in Yakima River Basin

Agents of Washington's Department of Ecology are fanning out across the Upper Yakima River basin , looking for senior water-rights holders willing to swap water for cash. Ecology water managers aren't waiting to find out if puny snowpacks will mean dried up streams in the Yakima basin, a key agricultural water resources.

They're actively hunting for senior water rights holders in the upper basin - primarily hay growers - who are willing to forego crops this year in return for money. The agency has a half million dollars to spend on water rights this year.

The program aims to reduce pressure on small streams and tributaries that feed the Yakima River in its headwaters. The idea is that fisheries and irrigators further downstream will be protected.

In 2005, a drought year, Ecology leased more than 4,000-acre-feet of water from growers in the upper basin. Already, junior water rights holders along the river have been told they may get less than 75 percent of their normal supplies.

Governor Jay Inslee has already declared a drought emergency in central Washington because the snowpack averages only about a quarter of normal for this time of year.

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