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In response, the state Department of Ecology got farmers to agree that they'd deplete the water table by only 10 feet a year. That clearly wasn't a long-term solution. Basically, no one expected the water to last even this long. But the state gave the farmers permits to pump. And nobody stopped pumping.
Now, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators have come up with a way for the state to save at least some of them. But can they get to one? If you listen to the irrigators, of course the answer is "yes."
After the irrigators' study came out, the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy commissioned a review by Norman Whittlesey. According to Whittlesey, the answer is "no," the project cannot get to a break-even point.
Although the question has varied somewhat over the years, this isn't Whittlesey's first "no." Back in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, with federal money for Phase 2 of the Columbia Basin Project uncertain at best, some people wanted the state to jump-start the process. In 1984, the state Senate voted to issue $100 million worth of bonds. But then, Paul C. Pitzer writes in his 1994 book, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, Whittlesey "dominated the hearings subsequently held by the House." He "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.
Federal money was still theoretically an option. The Bureau of Reclamation came up with a favorable cost-benefit analysis for Phase 2, but in the mid-1980s, Whittlesey and other WSU 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 80 percent of the tab. A lot of farmers didn't want the water anyway. Phase 2 didn't get off the ground.
In his analysis of the new Coluimbia-Snake River Irrigators' study, Whittlesey wrote that " the present value analysis should be revised to reduce the stream of irrigation benefits by at least 40% to 45%. These two corrections would reduce the benefit/cost to around 0.3 in the State-Federal alternative and to something less than 0.5 in the State-private alternative."
Whittlesey also found — shades of the old federal calculations for Phase 2 — that "the energy costs of irrigation development" — that is, the actual cost of pumping the water up out of the river, which would not be borne by the irrigators, and the opportunity cost of kilowatts not sold because the water never flows through the turbines — "are significantly understated."
Looking at the irrigators' estimate of jobs and other secondary impacts,Whittlesey found that the "figures and terms used to describe [such] secondary impact analysis are misleading and subject to gross misinterpretation by any of the general public or the state legislature. Such information properly explained and interpreted should never be implied to be sustained over a long time period. All such secondary impacts are transitory and are quickly (two to five years) reduced to zero as capital and labor resources are relocated and reemployed."
Unless the state issues revenue bonds or otherwise shoulders the whole public portion of the load, not much surface water will reach the Odessa area without a big infusion of federal money. The feds don't have a lot of spare cash.
The fact that eastern Washington's own Doc Hastings currently chairs the U.S. House of Representatives' Natural Resources Committee may improve the odds somewhat. But Sandison of the state Columbia River office acknowledges that in the realm of federal funding, "the competition for available dollars is extraordinarily high. However, he says, "My sense is that if we do a good enough job of packaging these projects and . . . do it in a way that's not asking for a staggering amount of money in one fiscal year," getting the money may be plausible. For the Odessa project, he adds, "we're really pushing the private financing. . . . Odessa won't be possible unless there's significant financial participation by the irrigators themselves."
Critics complain that state and federal governments have already started splitting the project up in ways that hide some of the costs. To get new water from the existing canals to the acreage currently being irrigated with groundwater south of Interstate 90, the project needed a second barrel for the Weber Siphon, a little east of Moses Lake. In the normal course of events, building a new Weber Siphon barrel would have required competing for federal approriations and preparing an EIS. But those considerations — and any question about whether or not building a new siphon made sense — became moot three years ago, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that $50 million in stimulus money would be authorized for the project.
With actual expenditures of $36 million, the new siphon barrel should be completed this year. It is large enough to carry all the water that would be needed to complete the Columbia Basin Project. The cost of the siphon has been taken out of the calculations for the Odessa subarea bailout and for the project as a whole. Now, the projects have become that much cheaper. It has therefore become somewhat easier to get to one. "If you pay for things on the side, they don't have to go into the cost column," says John Osborn of Center for Environmental Law and Policy. "That's what the Bureau and the Department of Ecology did with the Weber Siphon."
"It's important to recognize that . . the state funding an agricultural lobby group doing an economic analysis is really just part of a larger story," Osborn says. In his view, "since the 1940s, the Bureau has had as an objective the expansion of the canal infrastructure. . . . This is just the latest round."
Sandison says the state does not support the irrigators' proposal. "Separating [the Odessa bailout] into two projects to us is not wise." He explains that "since the infrastructure is in place north of 90, if you take the lands that are easily served by a canal that is already at full capacity, you've skewed the economics." Then, the area south of I-90 ends up being the higher-cost part of the project and suffers in the cost calculations.
On its own, the southern part would never get to one. Even in the never-never land of federal water projects, cherry-picking the cheapest part of the area "dooms the southern part," Sandison says. And even the northern part wouldn't be a slam-dunk. The irrigators' proposal would use federal water, flowing through federal canals. Therefore, Sandison explains the feds would "have to start a new EIS on this different project." This might take a while.
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