In Eastern Washington, the state and federal governments have launched an expansion new effort to expand Columbia Basin irrigation with more river water. It's a contentious project with a deep history. In the first of two articles, Crosscut's Daniel Jack Chasan looks at how the current project came about, despite environmental and economic questions.
The Republicans have taken control of the U.S. House, anti-tax sentiment has swept the state and nation, but out in arid central Washington, the New Deal lives — kind of. The latest evidence is a steel-reinforced concrete pipe nearly 15 feet in internal diameter buried in the dry ground east of Moses Lake.
Begun last year with federal stimulus money, the second barrel of the Weber Siphon is scheduled for completion in 2012. The huge pipe, and the rest of the expanded Weber Siphon Complex, can take water from the East Low Canal in the already-irrigated part of the federal Columbia Basin Project and move it under I-90 (about 10 miles east of Moses Lake) to land that hasn't yet received federal water. The new water may help the state rescue farmers who have been mining the Odessa aquifer at least since the years of Kennedy's New Frontier, and possibly help the federal government complete the Columbia Basin Project — which was authorized during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Whether, at this stage of history, building a new siphon was a good idea or a bad one seemed moot two years ago, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that $50 million in stimulus money would be authorized for the project. Spending stimulus dollars on the Weber Siphon would violate federal law, three environmental leaders wrote Salazar three weeks later.
Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, and Tristin Brown, conservation chair of the, Sierra Club's Cascade Chapter pointed out that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimullus act) required NEPA review, and that it prohibited spending timulus money on water projects that couldn't be completed without other funds. The new Weber Siphon failed on both counts.
Undeterred, the federal government let the contract, setting the stage for battles that continue.
Other than providing the obvious benefits of short-term construction jobs and local pork, why do it? What was going on?
Big picture: People have tried for decades to complete Phase 2 of the Columbia Basin Project, one of the New Deal's grandest schemes, which has given us Grand Coulee Dam, a half-century of irrigated agriculture in central Washington — and a touching reliance on federal largesse among people who claim they just want big government to get out of their way. (See, e.g., Clint Didier, the ex-pro football player who operates a farm in central Washington and ran last year for the Republican senatorial nomination. Didier opposed subsidies but had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars worth himself, and conceded in a Seattle Times interview that his family farm would never have existed without Grand Coulee Dam.)
The New Deal concept — and the abiding goal of central Washington economic boosters — has been to use power generated by Grand Coulee to pump water uphill from the reservoir created by the dam and irrigate more than a million acres of arid land. The federal government started work on Grand Coulee in 1933. Congress actually authorized the project in 1935, and re-authorized it in 1943. Workers completed Grand Coulee in 1941. The water started flowing in 1952. The first half-million-acre phase of the project was finished in the late 1960s. The late Sen. Warren Magnuson promptly started getting money appropriated to start Phase 2. But it was tough going. Magnuson got $100,000 set aside eight times, but the Nixon and Ford administrations refused to spend it.
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