One dam after another

The Black Rock reservoir project in arid Eastern Washington might be dead, but there are four more proposed dams where that came from. State lawmakers and two governors have helped keep hopes alive in an area where irrigation politics go all the way back to the New Deal.
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The Black Rock reservoir project in arid Eastern Washington might be dead, but there are four more proposed dams where that came from. State lawmakers and two governors have helped keep hopes alive in an area where irrigation politics go all the way back to the New Deal.

Former U.S. Rep. Sid Morrison says that building the Black Rock Dam east of Yakima would create "an oasis in the desert," but the federal Bureau of Reclamation says it would create 16 cents worth of benefit for every dollar invested, so the project looks like a goner. Not that it ever looked very promising. And not that ideas for big water projects ever really die.

The dam would create a new reservoir near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It would store water pumped from the Columbia River during high flows and release the water as needed into the canals of the Roza Irrigation District. The flows from Black Rock would replace water that would otherwise be drawn from the Yakima River. Morrison, who heads the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance, has pushed the idea for years.

Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation released figures showing Black Rock Dam would cost $6.7 billion to build and operate and generate benefits of $1 billion. This isn't the first time anyone has cast a cold eye on the costs and benefits, but the numbers "just keep getting worse," says Michael Garrity of American Rivers. Lawyer and activist Rachael Paschal-Osborne of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy adds that the project seems "even less cost-effective than the last time they looked at it."

And people seem to have noticed. The day after the bureau's report came out, Paschal-Osborne said, "I picked up the paper today and for the first time saw a federal official say, 'This dam is not going to be built.'"

Black Rock probably isn't the kind of investment you'd make - at least not the kind of investment you'd try to make – with your own money. And, in fact, if the project requires local money, it's dead. It's the kind of thing only the feds would build, and with that kind of cost-benefit analysis, Congress isn't likely to take out its checkbook for Black Rock. (If the dam site were in southeast Alaska, say, or rural West Virginia, Congress might be more inclined to overlook costs and benefits.)

Most people who live outside the arid regions probably think big dams are an idea whose time has already long-since passed. After all, we're tearing down dams on the Elwha River, probably tearing them down on the White Salmon, possibly tearing them down on the Klamath. At least some people contemplate tearing them down on the lower Snake River. Does anyone really contemplate building new ones?

You bet. People contemplate building new ones right here in the Pacific Northwest. Black Rock isn't the only big dam project on Washington's radar screen - or, perhaps one should say, on some Washingtonians' wish lists. Four others - Hawk Creek, Crab Creek, Sand Hollow, and Foster Creek – are at least being studied. One would back water up seven miles into Canada. Another would be taller than Hoover Dam.

"The scale of these structures would be massive," James Hagengruber wrote two years ago in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "The dam at Foster Creek, for example, would be 11,000 feet long and 700 feet high, according to a 2005 Department of Ecology report. This size is roughly twice as big as the Grand Coulee Dam, which is the largest concrete structure in North America." Nevertheless, "state officials say Washington's water needs are as massive as these dams. Wells are going dry in portions of central and Eastern Washington. The Odessa Aquifer, for instance, could use about 360,000 acre feet of water to replenish depleted groundwater."

It sure could. For the past half century, farmers east of Ephrata, Wash., have been pumping from an aquifer of fossil water, some of which has been carbon dated at 30,000 years - in other words, before the last glaciers melted and before the glacial floods swept through Eastern Washington. Originally, they used the water to irrigate what had previously been dryland wheat farms, tripling their yields. When prices spiked to record levels after the Russian wheat deal of 1973, the pumping accelerated.

Everybody knew from the start that the water couldn't last. Like the members of some dryland cargo cult, they faced east, toward Washington, D.C., hoping that deliverance would come when the federal government built phase two of the Columbia Basin Project, the mammoth New Deal scheme that has irrigated 671,000 acres of central Washington with water stored behind Grand Coulee and pumped uphill - for free - by electricity generated at the great dam. Phase two would irrigate nearly another half million acres. (The original federal legislation authorized a total of 1,029,999 acres.)

In the mid-1970s, Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., broke loose stalled congressional funding for a Second Bacon Siphon and Tunnel, which would be the key to phase two; then he and Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., overcame President Jimmy Carter's opposition to actually get it built. The Second Bacon Siphon and Tunnel was completed in 1979. Phase Two seemed all ready to go.

Then the project fell apart. It wasn't just that people started paying more attention to environmental concerns, or that the old New Deal consensus had largely evaporated. Not all the farmers eligible for phase two water saw the project as a rescue. Many wanted out. They didn't want to break up their holdings to meet federal acreage limits. They didn't want to pay.

"In the revisionist history that's being told, we were promised that water," Paschal-Osborne says. The truth is that "they actually rejected the water."

Not all of them rejected it, but people pumping from the Odessa Aquifer - who now mostly grow potatoes – had to hope for a different deus ex machina. They may have found one in the sweeping Columbia River Initiative pushed unsuccessfully by Washington Gov. Gary Locke at the end of his term and pushed successfully - in somewhat altered form – by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Two years ago, the Washington Legislature passed a law 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." The state could try to get money for any such action from the federal government, as well as its own taxpayers. 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," which implies dams.

The Black Rock Dam, which would be in the Yakima River Valley, rather than the Columbia Basin, is a separate issue. However, the Hawk Creek, Crab Creek, Sand Hollow, and Foster Creek dams are on the table because of this legislation.

Both the Washington Environmental Council and American Rivers took part in negotiations over the legislation, and gave it their qualified endorsement. What were they thinking? "It's important to understand what the bill does and doesn't say," American Rivers' Northwest director Rob Masonis explained at the time. "It's certainly true that a number of [vested interests] would like to see new storage." However, the new law didn't require it, and Masonis said he believed that "water needs can be met largely, if not entirely, through other means."

He said it was significant that the law required an inventory of existing water uses, measurement of the water volume actually being withdrawn, and long-term forecasts of supply and demand. The law also requires a needs assessment, an analysis of economic and environmental impacts, and a weighing of alternatives. Masonis conceded, though, that analyses could be cooked, and indeed that they had already been: The original cost-benefit analysis was based on "significantly flawed assumptions" - not least a real discount rate of 2.45 percent – he said.

Now the scheme is being touted as a response to global climate change. (These days, climate change can be used to justify virtually anything that "homeland security" can't.) "That wasn't the original idea," Paschal-Osborne notes. And it's not a very good one: "You don't destroy the last patches of habitat in eastern Washington as a hedge against climate change."

The legislation gives special treatment to the Odessa Aquifer. It says that "[t]he 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 Bureau of Reclamation is conducting an Odessa Subarea Special Study that looks at bringing in new Columbia Basin Project water. Both Garrity and Paschal-Osborne have misgivings about the commitment to an Odessa Aquifer bailout. Paschal-Osborne suggests, in fact, that it's "actually a proposal to build the second half of the Columbia Basin Project."

Garrity explains that "politically, there seems to be a near consensus that you don't want to leave people who are already irrigating high and dry." (Society has resisted changes to the established agricultural landscape - although not changes in ownership that have concentrated productive farmland in fewer and larger hands.) However, he shares Paschal-Osborne's perspective. American Rivers wants to prevent it from becoming "some kind of back-door way to 'complete' the Columbia Basin Project," he says.

And if we build no more big water projects? We might start by doing a better job of managing what we already have. "We have no water conservation standards in this state," Paschal-Osborne says.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.