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Dreams of more irrigation meet the environmental questions

In Eastern Washington, decades of irrigation are depleting the Odessa Aquifer. Should the state and federal government lead a rescue built around what has been called "the big fix" of diverting even more river water for farming?

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.

Work on proceeds on the Weber Siphon in 2010 as part of a controversial expansion of irrigation in Eastern Washington.

Work on proceeds on the Weber Siphon in 2010 as part of a controversial expansion of irrigation in Eastern Washington. Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The Weber Siphon, shown under construction with federal money, crosses I-90 in Eastern Washington about 10 miles east of Moses Lake (view looking north).

The Weber Siphon, shown under construction with federal money, crosses I-90 in Eastern Washington about 10 miles east of Moses Lake (view looking north). Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

In the second of two articles on irrigation in Eastern Washington, Crosscut's Daniel Jack Chasan focuses on the pressures to expand irrigation with Columbia River system waters and the concerns of environmentalists and economists.

As this new century began, farmers in the Odessa area were running out of options. The state hadn't discouraged them from pumping the limited supplies from an aquifer. Now, the state searched for ways to save them from themselves.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation area manager Bill Gray told the state Senate's agriculture and rural economic development committee earlier this year that around the beginning of the past decade, “the state of Washington came to Reclamation and said, 'There's a real need for additional water.' " The state, the Bureau, and the project irrigition districts signed a memorandum of understanding.

Then, a sweeping Columbia River Initiative, pushed unsuccessfully by Washington Gov. Gary Locke at the end of his term and pushed successfully — albeit renamed, and in somewhat altered form — by Gov. Chris Gregoire, specifically addressed the plight of farmers pumping fossil groundwater from the Odessa aquifer.

In 2006, the Washington legislature passed a law (the Columbia River Basin Water Supply Act) that set up an account from which money can be used to "assess, plan, and develop new storage, improve or alter operations of existing storage facilities, implement conservation projects, or any other action designed to provide access to new water supplies within the Columbia River Basin for both in-stream and out-of-stream uses." One-third of the water is supposed to be left in the river for fish. Two-thirds of the money "shall be used to support the development of new storage facilities." (Translation: “new storage facilities” means new dams, albeit not on the mainstem river.)

The 2006 legislation gives special treatment to the Odessa aquifer. It says that the "department of ecology shall focus its efforts to develop water supplies for the Columbia river basin on the following needs: (a) Alternatives to groundwater for agricultural users in the Odessa subarea aquifer."

The state has authorized enough water to irrigate 10,000 acres.  It has brokered a deal between the Bureau, which would supply the water, and an irrigation district, which would distribute it.  The Bureau would get the water by drawing down Lake Roosevelt. The Confederated Colville Tribes, whose reservation borders the lake, have agreed to a drawdown.

But the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Columbia Riverkeeper are challenging it in federal court. They argue that the National Environmental Policy Act requires the Bureau to look at the cumulative impact of past and foreseeable future water diversions, not just assess the planned drawdown in isolation. They also argue that, because Teck Cominco's Trail, British Columbia, smelter has contaminated Lake Roosevelt with huge quantities of mercury and other metals, drawing down the lake would create a health hazard.  The drawdown would expose some of the currently submerged residue to air and wind. They have lost in U.S. district court, and have appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the state and federal governments are thinking a lot bigger than 10,000 acres. The Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology have conducted an Odessa Subarea Special Study that looks at supplying new Columbia Basin Project water to all (102,600) or some (57,000) of the acres now irrigated from deep wells.

This would require an additional drawdown of Lake Roosevelt or Banks Lake (or both); construction of a new Rocky Coulee reservoir is also a possibility, potentially in combination with some lake drawdown. Irrigating the whole area would also require building an East High Canal. Derek Sandison, director of the state's Office of Columbia River, told the Senate committee that the scheme described in the subarea study represents " 'the big fix' for the Odessa area."

But why fix it? The simplest answer, Sandison says, is that the legislature has already made that decision. Another answer is that the potatoes grown above the Odessa aquifer have long storage lives, which enables the local potato processors to operate less seasonally. The processing makes “a significant contribution to this state's agricultural economy.”


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Mar 27, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

If these farmers switched from irrigated potatoes to dry farmed wheat what is the financial loss/change? It sounds like the invisible hand of capitalism has already shown its cards. By the way, if you guys could figure out how to get Starbucks into the headline, just think how many people would read about these important environmental pieces.

Posted Mon, Mar 28, 4:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Just more farmer welfare

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