With fracking and droughts on the rise, it's easy to find headlines bemoaning the poisoning and depletion of aquifers. This, however, is a story of redemption. Such stories, of course, must start with the problem.
The Northwest — mercifully — lacks a significant fossil fuel extraction industry, so we are spared any problems from fracking, but we certainly have our share of thirsty crops and people, and these definitely cause depletion problems in the arid lands where most of our crops are grown.
The most recent poster child for this is the Odessa area. With the groundwater Odessa farmers relied upon virtually inaccessible, the solution there has been the typical one: Create a large project and give them a chunk of the Columbia River during their growing season.
In the Walla Walla River basin, though, things are different. It's been almost a decade since the area has seen that kind of water depletion. That's not because of any kind of natural abundance, but because the region has come together around a unique plan to recharge its aquifers: by capturing excess flows in the river, and letting the water soak into the ground.
For over a century, the Walla Walla River ran dry in the summer, and many springs and the streams they feed began running dry, too. Volunteers were forced to relocate fish stranded in disconnected pools.
The trouble for David Lee and his dad, both farmers, began in the late 1980s. The Lees had farmed a plot north of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, on the Washington side of the state line. They rotated corn, alfalfa, grass seed and onions, among other crops, without any unusual problems for 20 years. “We had more water than motor to pump it,” recalls David. Then their well started to produce less water in the mid 1980s.
The Lees were not alone. As agriculture grew and consumed ever more water, local irrigation districts began lining ditches and piping water so that less was lost to leakage. These measures actually accelerated the decline of the aquifers, since leakage contributed to their recharge. Those dependent on wells suffered a more precipitous decline in performance.
Meanwhile, without enough water in the river, bull trout and steelhead populations also declined.
Then something unusual happened. In 1994, local stakeholders, having witnessed the antagonism stirred up during a similar situation in the Klamath Basin, formed an uneasy alliance called the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council to negotiate a more peaceable approach. The members, comprised of environmentalists, irrigators, government agencies and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation (CTUIR), were still in the discussion stage when things came to a head in the late 1990s.
Bull trout and steelhead were listed as threatened species, and several environmental groups, noting the inadequate flows for fish, threatened irrigators with a lawsuit.
Rather than fighting the problem out in court, irrigators agreed to leave enough water in the river for bullies and steelies to dodge extinction. This staved off the suit, but was insufficient to truly restore fisheries there. The Confederated Tribes longed to see the Chinook return, and for that, the agreed-upon rate would need to be doubled.
This being a compromise, no one was entirely happy. And now even farmers with surface water rights were facing possible shortages. Irrigators redoubled conservation efforts, but area stakeholders concluded they needed a new source of water.
An untapped source flowed right by them during winter and early spring, when rain and melting snow fuel high flows in the river. Farmers don't use it then, and it's more than fish need. The water hurtles toward the ocean, bypassing the basin's stream branches, sometimes called distributary channels.
“In the last 50 to a hundred years, those channels have been straightened and modified for the benefit of irrigation,” explains Steve Patten, Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council's senior environmental scientist. And people have built levees to protect the towns, as well as putting in headgates on all their diversion structures. "So we now have a system where in the winter, the river is constrained to a main channel," Patten says. "And all that water flows out of the valley extremely quickly, whereas historically, it would have slowed down, spread out through this distributary system, soaked into the ground and recharged the shallow aquifer."
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