Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
It's all about getting to one: The federal Bureau of Reclamation can't fund a water project for which the calculated public benefits don't at least equal the calculated costs — in other words, a benefit-cost ratio of at least 1. One can argue that a cost-benefit ratio or 1-to-1 this is a pretty low bar. Spending billions of dollars on a project that may just break even makes limited sense — unless, of course, you are one of the beneficiaries. At best, the system privatizes benefits while it socializes costs. In this society, that hardly makes it unique.
Naturally, project boosters squeeze the numbers any way they can to make the calculation come out one. Naturally, project opponents point to the shakiness of assumptions required to make the numbers work out right. That has been the recent — and not-so-recent — history of efforts to expand the federal Columbia Basin Project, and especially of efforts to expand it into the farmland currently irrigated from wells sunk deep into the Odessa aquifer — where farmers have been pumping their way through a deposit of "fossil" groundwater for the past half century or so. According to the state Department of Ecology, those farmers "have seen the aquifer drop an average of 7 feet per year for decades."
Now, a lobbying group, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, has used state money to produce an economic "review" that proposes a way of getting Columbia River water to about half the land currently being irrigated from the Odessa aquifer. The group has already asked the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee to go along. Some people admire both the irrigators' tenacity and their idea. The Tri-City Herald says the scheme "appears to be a winner."
How did a special-interest group get taxpayer money for a study that served its own interest? It's a long story. During the New Deal, the federal government decided to use power generated by the Grand Coulee Dam to pump water uphill from Lake Roosevelt, which was created by the dam, and channel it south to irrigate more than a million acres of arid land. Congress authorized the project in 1935, and re-authorized it in 1943. Workers completed Grand Coulee in 1941.
The original idea was to do the Columbia Basin Project all at once, but farmers in the Odessa subarea, among others, didn't want to be part of the project, so the feds decided to complete it piecemeal. The water started flowing in 1952. The first half-million-acre phase of the project was finished in the late 1960s. By now, the project has grown incrementally to 671,000 acres. That makes it the largest all-federal project in the country, but if you're still dreaming of the full million acres, it's incomplete.
Originally, just about everyone farming in the Odessa area raised dryland wheat. About half a century ago, some people started irrigating their wheat from deep wells. Over the years, they drilled more wells and had to drill them deeper. After 1973, when wheat prices spiked because of a huge wheat deal with the old Soviet Union, the amount of pumping skyrocketed. The water table kept dropping. The people who were pumping it hoped against hope that federal irrigation water would come flowing over the hill to save them from themselves. It didn't.
Six years ago, in 2006, the state Legislature passed the Columbia River Basin Water Supply Act, which set up an account 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 Columbia River.) The 2006 legislation gave special treatment to the Odessa aquifer.
In October 2010, the state and the Bureau of Reclamation issued a draft environmental impact statement for the Odessa subarea. It identified two alternatives: One would provide surface water to all 102,000 acres currently irrigated from the aquifer. The other would provide surface water to 57,000 acres. Neither got to one. The draft EIS came out with a worst-case benefit-cost ratio of just .396. The best case — which critics found implausible — still amounted to only 917. “If you correct their mistakes,” retired Washington State University professor of agricultural economics Norman Whittlesey said last year, “it's probably closer to .1.” (Late last year, the Bureau announced it had come up with a new preferred alternative, which will be the subject of a final EIS due out early this year. It would serve 70,000 acres of farmland both north and south of Interstate 90 in east central Washington.)
Irrigators north of Interstate 90 figured that at best, they'd have a long, long wait for federal water. The feds and state hadn't taken a very close look at what it would take to supply them. As Derek Sandison, who heads the state's Office of Columbia River, explains, Adams County suggested taking a look at the mechanics and the economics of getting water to the northern part of the Odessa subarea. The state gave Adams County the money to do so. The county hired the irrigators group.
After that, said Sandison, "what it morphed into then was a separate proposal." The irrigators have proposed taking water only to the acreage north of I-90, where it could be served by existing canals, and suggested that the state issue $250 million in revenue bonds to pay for it. The irrigators could pay the money back over 20 years. So, now the study has produced the plan that the Tri-City paper likes.
Why should the state bail out people who are currently pumping from an aquifer created perhaps by melting glaciers tens of thousands of years ago? Not everybody thinks it should. On the other hand, you could say that bailing them out is just the right thing to do. You could point to the fact that the potatoes grown there store well; without them, local processors would have to operate more seasonally and might leave. You could say that the area lies within the boundaries of the Columbia Basin Project, and when those people — or their predecessors — started pumping, they reasonably expected the long-delayed federal water that their more distant predecessors had turned down. (In advancing this argument, it may help to skip over the fact that federal water has looked iffy at least since Washington was governed by Republican John Spellman.) You could also say that the state gave them a green light to keep pumping.
Certainly, the state didn't discourage them. Everyone knew from the start that the groundwater wouldn't last. Originally, just about everyone farming in the Odessa area had raised dryland wheat. About half a century ago, some people started irrigating their wheat from deep wells. Over the years, they drilled more wells and had to drill them deeper. After 1973, when wheat prices spiked because of a huge wheat deal with the old Soviet Union, the amount of pumping skyrocketed. By the mid-1970s, the water table was dropping up to 40 feet a year.
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