An irrigation project with New Deal echoes blooms in Eastern Washington

Anti-tax sentiment may have taken hold in much of the country, including east of the Cascades. But a stimulus-package irrigation project is reopening discussion of much-larger work.

The Weber Siphon helps provide new areas with irrigation water. This August 2010 view, looking south, shows the project crossing I-90 about 10 miles east of Moses Lake

The Weber Siphon helps provide new areas with irrigation water. This August 2010 view, looking south, shows the project crossing I-90 about 10 miles east of Moses Lake Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Workers install part of the Weber Siphon project in August 2010.

Workers install part of the Weber Siphon project in August 2010. Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The Columbia Basin Project area in central Washington. The Odessa subarea is to the east of Moses Lake.

The Columbia Basin Project area in central Washington. The Odessa subarea is to the east of Moses Lake.

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.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 23, 7:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Wallace Stegner was right when he said that the attitude of the supposedly self-sufficient residents of the rural West towards government could be summed up as "Leave us alone and give us more money." The dry side of the state has been sucking at the government teat - and Seattle's teat - for a century and they show no signs of weaning.

By the way, what exit from I-5 would I take to see the photographed project near Moses Lake?

talisker

Posted Wed, Mar 23, 7:46 a.m. Inappropriate

“the costs were understated and the benefits overstated,”

Just like the Affordable Health Care Act. Or, probably, most government projects, for that matter.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Mar 23, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I think maybe we should listen to the Teabaggers and "run the government more like a business" - charge all those rural communities a "fair market price" for the water they get from this irrigation project instead of subsidizing it.

Posted Wed, Mar 23, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Glen Stockwell out of Ritzville, who has run for the State House in the 9th LD on a couple of occasions, is probably one of the most knowledgable people in the state when it comes to discussion of finishing Phase II. Good guy, and he's absolutely right on the issue.

Ryan

Posted Wed, Mar 23, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a fascinating piece.

This is truly a sad investment in infrastructure - not only does it fail to be ecologically smart but it is not cost-effective. Tragically, we have over 70,000 failing bridges in this country not to mention hundreds of thousands of miles of failing water pipes that need replacement.

Strategically reinvesting and nenewing existing infrastructure is where the federal stimulus dollars should have gone along with investment in high speed rail corridors that abut significant density.

The bad investment highlighted in this article wastes valuable public funds and alienate thes public - it is interesting the anti-govt folks want this investment when it is the very kind of investment that makes people doubt government!

A last point, we need to do infrastructure differently. Much of the 20th century infrastructure construction was based on the 19th century notion of man and technology triumphing over nature. Now that we have built many of the projects, we understand how the harmful ones create an increadibly expensive feedback loop (emptying and salinating aquifers etc). It's amazing we are still filling out a plan that is 60-70 years old with all the new information that is now out there & all the real needs!

Posted Fri, Mar 25, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Would you please include links to the relevant technical reports in your articles so the reader may be more informed. For those interested, the USBR Draft Economics Technical Report is here:

http://www.usbr.gov/pn/programs/eis/odessa/reports/econtechreport.pdf

I did a very quick review of it and I found no mention of the economic contribution of exports of agricultural products from the area through the ports in western Washington. According to the WSDA, Washington exported over $6 billion worth of agricultural products and food in 2008, about two thirds destined for Asia. What would be the economic impact in western Washington if they lost revenue from shipping these products? It seems like that should be a factor in any decision regarding the Odessa problem.

Herb

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »