An irrigation project with New Deal echoes blooms in Eastern Washington

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

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.

Some people thought the time for big federal irrigation projects had come and gone. The blue-ribbon National Water Commission — of which Seattle’s Jim Ellis was a member — reported in 1973 that the West had been won, and recommended that farmers pay the full cost of any future federal irrigation projects. A few years later, Jimmy Carter’s White House — with Seattle’s Kathy Fletcher in the policy work — proposed scrapping 15 future federal water projects and modifying others. But times hadn’t changed that much.

The urge to move water around the west at federal expense for local gain hadn’t really breathed its last. The National Water Commission was quickly forgotten, and Carter’s proposal went nowhere on Capitol Hill.

The Carter debacle was widely described as a triumph of pork-barrel politics, which it was. But the old New Deal idealism hadn’t totally vanished. In 1975, when the manager of a Columbia Basin Project irrigation district was asked what the benefits of expanding the project would be, he answered: “Homes. Homes for people. It would enable more people to live the finest life there is, the life of an independent farmer.”

That was the old vision — at least one of the old visions — and it was a fine one. Very few people still talked that way at the time. No one talks that way today.

Still, in those bleak post-Watergate years of the mid-1970s, Sens. Magnuson and Henry Jackson overcame Jimmy Carter’s objections to finally get money spent on a Second Bacon Siphon and Tunnel, one key structure for moving Phase 2 water through a coulee and then through the high ground on the other side. The state kicked in about one-third of the cost. The Second Bacon Siphon and Tunnel was completed in 1979.

By now, the project has grown incrementally to 671,000 acres, but there has never been a great push to complete the full million. The Bureau of Reclamation came up with a favorable cost-benefit analysis for Phase 2, but in the mid-1980s, a group of Washington State University and University of Idaho economists shot it down. In the Bureau’s analysis, “the costs were understated and the benefits overstated,” the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) concluded at the start of 1986. Among other things, the Bureau of Reclamation had omitted the cost of the energy needed to pump the water out of Lake Roosevelt and the cost of the energy foregone because that water wasn’t turning turbines. With the deck stacked, the Bureau had calculated that the U.S. Treasury would contribute nothing at all.

The university economists — and other independent reviewers — calculated that the Treasury would pick up most of the tab. “The Bureau’s 1984 analysis showed that 46 percent of the construction costs would be paid by irrigators, 34 percent by power users, and 20 percent by Washington State,” the GAO explained. “The Bureau’s estimates were in contrast with two other studies which concluded that U.S. taxpayers would pay about 80 percent of the project costs.”

Some people wanted the state to jump-start the process. In 1984, fresh out of a deep recession, the state Senate voted to do just that by issuing $100 million worth of bonds. But then, Paul C. Pitzer writes in his 1994 book, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, Washington State University agricultural economist “Norman K. Whittlesey dominated the hearings subsequently held by the House.” Whittlesey “accused local people in the area, sprinkler dealers, bankers, and professionals, of backing construction only because they hoped to benefit financially.” The state House rejected the bill.

(The legislature didn’t totally turn its back on the Columbia Basin Project. In 1987, it voted to hold in perpetuity the right to 3.2 million acre-feet of water that could be used to complete the project.)

Many farmers simply didn’t want to be part of the project. Some didn’t want to pay the price of the water, despite its heavy subsidization. Some didn’t want to break up their farms to meet federal acreage requirements. Others didn’t want to switch from dryland wheat farming to irrigation. That was nothing new. Pitzer writes that dryland wheat farmers in the eastern part of the project area — which includes the Odessa subarea — opted out of irrigation water for 300,000 acres, nearly one-third of the total, by 1946. This forced the federal government to build the project piecemeal, rather than completing it as a single unit. Rachael Paschal Osborn says, “In the revisionist history that’s being told, ‘we were promised that water.’ ” The truth is that the whole million acres might have been watered years ago, but “they actually rejected the water.”

Originally, just about everyone farming in the Odessa area had raised dryland wheat. About half a century ago, some people started irrigating from deep wells. Over the years, they drilled more wells and had to drill them deeper. After 1973, when grain prices soared because of a huge wheat deal with the Soviet Union, the amount of pumping skyrocketed.

Many of the intended beneficiaries have historically been reluctant to pay. And with good reason: “[F]rom the early 1920s through the 1950s, the Bureau of Reclamation, and project backers, . . . insisted that the water would be virtually free,” Pitzer writes. “This. . . caused resentment when costs rose. [Project farmers] feel that the power subsidy, built into the project from its inception, allows them the freedom to . . . demand that all costs be covered by the government no matter how high they might climb. They have come, with some justification, to expect something for nothing.”

But farmers who had started pumping out the Odessa aquifer didn’t reject Phase 2 water. By the mid-1980s, they had been waiting years for it to save them. Originally, just about everyone farming in the Odessa area had raised dryland wheat. About half a century ago, some people started irrigating from deep wells. Over the years, they drilled more wells and had to drill them deeper. After 1973, when grain prices soared because of a huge wheat deal with the old Soviet Union, the amount of pumping skyrocketed.

(In the summer of 1972 , the U.S. sold 440 million bushels of wheat to the old U.S.S.R.. The “Russian Wheat Deal” involved heavy subsidies to private exporters and credits to the Soviet Union. American wheat prices nearly tripled over the following year.)

People have been pumping aquifer water from that expanded well system ever since. By this time, potatoes have replaced wheat as the main cash crop, and Odessa aquifer spuds support a local potato processing industry. (Think frozen fries.) Meanwhile, the wells have gone deeper, in some places bringing up older water higher in sodium that has made the soil more saline. Any long-term solution to the farmers’ current problems would have to include amending the soil.

Tomorrow: In part 2, the Bureau of Reclamation moves ahead, looking for economic studies to justify full-scale development. Environmentalists talk about their concerns with going ahead.

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