Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
In the second of two articles on irrigation in Eastern Washington, Crosscut's Daniel Jack Chasan focuses on the pressures to expand irrigation with Columbia River system waters and the concerns of environmentalists and economists.
As this new century began, farmers in the Odessa area were running out of options. The state hadn't discouraged them from pumping the limited supplies from an aquifer. Now, the state searched for ways to save them from themselves.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation area manager Bill Gray told the state Senate's agriculture and rural economic development committee earlier this year that around the beginning of the past decade, “the state of Washington came to Reclamation and said, 'There's a real need for additional water.' " The state, the Bureau, and the project irrigition districts signed a memorandum of understanding.
Then, a sweeping Columbia River Initiative, pushed unsuccessfully by Washington Gov. Gary Locke at the end of his term and pushed successfully — albeit renamed, and in somewhat altered form — by Gov. Chris Gregoire, specifically addressed the plight of farmers pumping fossil groundwater from the Odessa aquifer.
In 2006, the Washington legislature passed a law (the Columbia River Basin Water Supply Act) that set up an account from which money can be used 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 river.)
The 2006 legislation gives special treatment to the Odessa aquifer. It says that the "department of ecology shall focus its efforts to develop water supplies for the Columbia river basin on the following needs: (a) Alternatives to groundwater for agricultural users in the Odessa subarea aquifer."
The state has authorized enough water to irrigate 10,000 acres. It has brokered a deal between the Bureau, which would supply the water, and an irrigation district, which would distribute it. The Bureau would get the water by drawing down Lake Roosevelt. The Confederated Colville Tribes, whose reservation borders the lake, have agreed to a drawdown.
But the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Columbia Riverkeeper are challenging it in federal court. They argue that the National Environmental Policy Act requires the Bureau to look at the cumulative impact of past and foreseeable future water diversions, not just assess the planned drawdown in isolation. They also argue that, because Teck Cominco's Trail, British Columbia, smelter has contaminated Lake Roosevelt with huge quantities of mercury and other metals, drawing down the lake would create a health hazard. The drawdown would expose some of the currently submerged residue to air and wind. They have lost in U.S. district court, and have appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the state and federal governments are thinking a lot bigger than 10,000 acres. The Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Ecology have conducted an Odessa Subarea Special Study that looks at supplying new Columbia Basin Project water to all (102,600) or some (57,000) of the acres now irrigated from deep wells.
This would require an additional drawdown of Lake Roosevelt or Banks Lake (or both); construction of a new Rocky Coulee reservoir is also a possibility, potentially in combination with some lake drawdown. Irrigating the whole area would also require building an East High Canal. Derek Sandison, director of the state's Office of Columbia River, told the Senate committee that the scheme described in the subarea study represents " 'the big fix' for the Odessa area."
But why fix it? The simplest answer, Sandison says, is that the legislature has already made that decision. Another answer is that the potatoes grown above the Odessa aquifer have long storage lives, which enables the local potato processors to operate less seasonally. The processing makes “a significant contribution to this state's agricultural economy.”
A Bureau of Reclamation draft economic technical report says that 75 percent of the potatoes raised in the Odessa area wind up frozen, and predicts that from 2010 to 2025, without extra water, the value of those frozen potatoes will drop from almost $47 million to a bit more than $9 million.
Beyond dollars and cents — and the belief that the water was somehow promised — the plight of the Odessa aquifer pumpers is sometimes cast as a matter of morality: We can't just leave them high and dry. Certainly, the people who farm that area have worked hard. On the other hand, they have been making speculative investments for decades. Now, state government wants to bail them out. One can argue that it is the right thing to do, just as one can argue that the federal government has done the right thing by bailing out financial institutions whose speculative investments went bad, but it would be a bailout nonetheless.
How much government encouraged the Odessa irrigators to speculate will get you an argument. At the least, government did not discourage anyone from making risky bets. But everybody knew from the start that the groundwater couldn't last. It's fossil water, some of which has been carbon dated at 30,000 years. It isn't recharged by rainfall. When it's gone, it's gone.
By the mid-1970s, the water table was dropping up to 40 feet a year. In response, Ecology got farmers to agree that they'd deplete the water table only 10 feet a year. That wasn't really a long-term solution. Basically, no one expected the water to last even this long. But nobody stopped pumping.
(There's nothing novel about people pumping groundwater faster than nature can replace it. Think of the well-publicized decline of the Oglalla Aquifer, which supplies water to the High Plains from Texas to South Dakota. Think of the huge aquifer drops in parts of California and Arizona. In fact, think of just about any place in the United States. “Everywhere from Massachusetts to Florida, from California to Seattle ... has problems with excessive groundwater pumping,” says Robert Glennon, professor of law at the University of Arizona and author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It. "It's the "epitome of the 'tragedy of the commons.' ")
On Jan. 31, the last day to comment on the Odessa Subarea Special Study Draft EIS, CELP and five other environmental groups asked the Bureau to withdraw the document and basically forget about the whole idea. In a press release, Paschal Osborn said: "Economists, wildlife biologists, and lawyers have uniformly panned the Bureau's proposal as environmental damaging, fiscally irresponsible, and illegal." Her group argues that irrigating the Odessa subarea would destroy and fragment Central Washington's dwindling shrub steppe habitat, and sever corridors through which wildlife moves.
Whatever its drawbacks, irrigating another 57,000 or even 102,600 acres wouldn't require a new way to get water under I-90. The second Weber Siphon would permit all that and more. The water needed to irrigate that first 10,000 acres of the Odessa subarea wouldn't make a dent in its capacity. In fact, the new stimulus-funded plumbing can carry enough water to irrigate all the remaining acreage in the Columbia Basin Project.
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