Dreams of more irrigation meet the environmental questions

In Eastern Washington, decades of irrigation are depleting the Odessa Aquifer. Should the state and federal government lead a rescue built around what has been called "the big fix" of diverting even more river water for farming?

Crosscut archive image.

The Weber Siphon, shown under construction with federal money, crosses I-90 in Eastern Washington about 10 miles east of Moses Lake (view looking north).

In Eastern Washington, decades of irrigation are depleting the Odessa Aquifer. Should the state and federal government lead a rescue built around what has been called "the big fix" of diverting even more river water for farming?

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.

Both Paschal Osborn and Michael Garrity, Northwest conservation director of American Rivers, have expressed misgivings about the commitment to an Odessa Aquifer bailout. They see it as the camel's nose under the tent, the first step toward something much larger. Paschal Osborn suggests, in fact, that it's "actually a proposal to build the second half of the Columbia Basin Project."

It's clearly at least related. The two overlap, and 102,600 acres represents more than one-fourth of the project's unfinished business. The Bureau of Reclamation talks frankly about the Odessa Subarea Study as a look at “the possibility of continuing phased development of the Columbia Basin Project.”

Norman K. Whittlesey, who played a key role in questioning irrigation economics in the 1980s,  and Walter R. Butcher, both by that time emeritus professors of Resource Economics at WSU, wrote in a 2009 letter about the Lake Roosevelt drawdown that it "becomes apparent” that the Bureau of Reclamation “is really treating this [modest amount of water for the Odessa area] as a foot in the door for a much larger project.” They argued that this “approach to planning is misleading to both the general public and policy makers in the state. Unfortunately, the state is complicit in this deception.”

Arguably, the question of whether or not channeling water to the Odessa area represents step one of Phase 2 has become moot. The project has already expanded piecemeal by roughly one-third, and enlargement of the Weber Siphon Complex suggests that it can continue to grow.

Even viewing the Odessa subarea proposals as standalone projects, rather than as stepping stones to something larger, Paschal Osborn and other critics see a lot of wishful economic thinking. The draft EIS claims that if the wells dry up and the potato farms and processors shut down, central Washington will lose 3,500 jobs. Even so, it comes out with a best-case cost-benefit ratio of .917. The worst case looks more like .396. Just breaking even would give you a ratio of 1.

Sandison acknowledges that the cost-benefit ratio for irrigating the full Odessa subarea looks “pretty low.” To irrigate the whole area, he explains, one would have to build an expensive new East High Canal. That probably isn't in the cards. Right now, he says, state and local officials are looking at ways of modifying the proposal to irrigte roughly half the acreage, which requires no new canal, in order to get the cost-benefit ratio up to one. He suggests that it may be possible to irrigate more acreage north of I-90, which would enable the project to capture more benefits with little additional cost.

Critics doubt that the numbers are even as good as they look in the EIS. Whittlesey, who has been looking at permutations of these economic rationales for close to 40 years, thinks that the agencies can come up with even .917 only by viewing the project through rose-colored glasses. “If you correct their mistakes,” he says, “it's probably closer to .1.” He says that “you don't have to be an economist to know” this makes no sense.

The Bureau can't go ahead unless the cost-benefit ratio hits 1. The chance of the full Odessa subarea plan, much less the full project, doing that well is just about nil. Nevertheless, the full project is still authorized by federal law. A study adopted by Congress in 1946 as a blueprint for the project foresaw construction lasting 70 years. The closing of that rather expansive window draws nigh. What are the chances the project will really be completed by 2015? What are the chances that its current backers will stop trying?

On the other hand, the days when one might plausibly expect Uncle Sam to pick up the whole check — for any portion of the remaining work — are long gone. Sandison says that expansion in the Columbia Basin would require cost-sharing among federal and state governments and private entities.

In the Yakima Basin, he says, it would also require local government to participate. Water problems are more acute there. Yakima River flows are probably more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than flows in the Columbia, and the basin has already suffered a string of droughts. Making sure there's enough water for the future may require letting the river move out into some of its historic floodplain again. In fact, Sandison says that in the Yakima Basin, “an emphasis on restoring proper floodplain function becomes essential.”

Step right up, folks. Clearly, times have changed.

Or not. Whittlesey says the cost-benefit analysis in the current DEIS is basically a re-run of the one done in the 1980s. The dismal economics remain. And that pool of fossil water keeps shrinking. The sub-area study notes that the water level in half the wells has dropped 100 to 200 feet since the early 1980s. It predicts that 70 percent of the wells will stop pumping by 2020. Whittlesey suggests that economically, despite the processing jobs at risk, this wouldn't be a big deal. The state as a whole, he says, would basically never notice if the potato farms in the East High area went back to dryland wheat.

If the water never flows, Whittlesey says, the new Weber Siphon just becomes “basically a bridge to nowhere.” And if it does flow? “Spending $20,000 [an acre] to irrigate land that has value of $3,000 when you're done,” Whittlesey says, would be “just pouring sand down a rathole.”


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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.