Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit two top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is Environment. This article was originally published February 15, 2012.
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.
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