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Economic and dam related articles

Columbia Basin Irrigation Project
- The Second Half

by Alice Parker
Wheat Life, November 2004

As a result of the Endangered Species Act and the decline in salmon stocks, both the Bureau of Reclamation and Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) put a moratorium on any additional withdrawals from the Columbia River in June 1993. These decisions were made after a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) had already been completed in September 1989. A Supplemental Draft EIS (SDEIS) was completed in September 1993 that mainly addressed Fish & Wildlife issues but was never published. The Environmental Impact Statements were part of the environmental review process for development of the second half of the Columbia Basin Project (CBP). Development of the second half of the CBP was essentially put on the shelf in the early 1990s.

The moratorium was lifted in November 2003, but any withdrawals must consider flow targets and the Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion. While the region continues to debate the science with regard to flow requirements necessary to protect and recover salmon species listed under the ESA, the biological opinion does include flow targets for the Columbia River and gives direction on the process that Reclamation must follow in order to enter into new water contracts.

A water right of over 3.2-million-acre feet (MAF) of water is being held for the development of the 538,600 acres earmarked for the second half of the CBP. The Washington State Legislature adopted legislation (RCW 90.40.100) in 1987 that holds this water right in perpetuity until the CBP is declared complete. Since Congress authorized the building and size of the CBP, Congress must also declare the project complete. Using improved technology available today in the delivery and on-farm irrigation systems, water usage will be reduced from the 3.2 MAF allocated for the second half. A past proposal that would allocate some water rights to mitigate for fish and wildlife purposes was withdrawn in August 1994 after the Bureau suspended planning on the DEIS and SDEIS for continued or expanded development.

Water is currently being pumped from the Odessa Sub Area Aquifer (area that is included in the second half of the CBP) from wells for irrigation. Well permits were issued by DOE in the 1960s and 1970s as a temporary source of irrigation water until surface water could be brought to the area through the CBP—specifically, the East Low and proposed East High Canal. The cost of this development of well irrigation was born by individual landowners as a temporary measure until their lands would be included in the additional development of the Columbia Basin Project. The Odessa Sub Area Aquifer water table now has declined to a critical level. A long-term solution to address irrigation needs must be found and implemented as soon as possible—before the water in the Odessa Sub Area Aquifer is depleted. Our farmers have waited long enough for this to happen.

A viable solution to this problem is a resource exchange project that will substitute surface water for ground water by continuing the development of the Columbia Basin Project. The benefits will be multi-purpose:

The Columbia River is a remarkable public waterway system with many, often competing demands for the water it contains. Yet it seems that even though the CBP water rights date back to 1938, the continued development of the project has been ignored.

The people who depend on the livelihood of the Columbia River and ag are seeking a responsible solution to the depletion of the Odessa Sub Area Aquifer. With the leadership of the Columbia Basin Development League and assistance of the Big Bend Resource Conservation and Development Council and the Big Bend Economic Development Council, two well-attended workshops were held over the past four months. These workshops formed the basis for an organized, collaborative effort that will address the issue. Current work includes forming a steering committee to help guide the effort and developing an action plan that will explore alternatives and build an understanding of the issue and support for the proposed solution. The Columbia Basin Development League is a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization, incorporated in 1964 with the mission to provide support for the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and its future development, to protect its water rights and educate the public on the renewable resource and the multi-purpose benefits of the project.

Columbia Basin Development League
The Columbia Basin Development League has been a nonprofit corporation for over 30 years. Incorporated in 1964, its mission is to provide support for the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and its future development, to protect its water rights and educate the public about the renewable resource and multi-purpose benefits of the project.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Columbia Basin Project (CBP) is a multi-purpose development, authorized by Congress in August 1935, primarily for the purpose of irrigation. The CBP is located in central Washington state, an area with an ample growing season of at least 165 days annually and soil well-suited for growing crops. Average rainfall is between six and 10 inches. Water delivery to irrigate CBP farms began in 1952. President Franklin D. Roosevelt added the CBP—one of the largest ag irrigation projects—to his Public Works Administration Program. In January 1969, operations and maintenance responsibilities for much of the irrigation and drainage systems within the CBP transferred to three irrigation districts—the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, the Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation District and the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District. Federal power sales from Grand Coulee Dam, a key element of the CBP, are used to repay the cost of initial investment. Irrigators and the irrigation districts pay to pump irrigation water and to operate and maintain facilities.

About the Columbia Basin Project:

Acres authorized by U.S. Congress: 1,095,000.
Acres now irrigated: 670,000.

Columbia Basin Project data

Grand Coulee Hydroelectric Dam
Total length of dam: 5223 feet
Total rated capacity: 6,494,000 kilowatts
Average net generation: 20,000,000,000 kWh

7 small hydroelectric plants
Total rated capacity: 145,000 kilowatts
Average seasonal generation: 523,000,000 kWh

Major reservoirs
Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake: 9,562,000 acre-feet
Banks Lake (equalizing reservoir): 1,275,000 acre-feet
Potholes Reservoir: 512,000 acre-feet

Grand Coulee Pumping facilities
6 pumps (65,000 hp/each): 9600 cubic feet/second
6 reversible pump/generators (67,500 hp/each): 10,200 cubic feet/second

Distribution system
Canals and laterals: 2360 miles
Drains and waste ways: 3438 miles
Irrigation acres: 670,000

Fish/Wildlife/Recreation acres costs and repayment
Original construction costs: $531-million
Paid by water users: $73-million
Paid by Grand Coulee power sales: $458-million
Annual O&M: over $28-million

The irrigation system

Twelve of the world’s largest pumps draw water from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake to irrigate more than two-thirds of a million acres of cropland in the Columbia Basin. The water, first pumped to Banks Lake, is delivered through a main siphon, tunnel and canal system to the project’s irrigated area that begins 90 miles south of Grand Coulee hydroelectric dam.

Before the irrigation water finds its way back to the Columbia River, much of it will have been recycled throughout the CBP. Recapture and reuse of canal operational spill, seepage and runoff from the East and Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation Districts by Potholes Reservoir provides nearly all the supply for the South Irrigation District, making the CBP one of the most efficient projects ever built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The annual diversion from the Columbia River to the CBP averages 2.5-million acre-feet—about three percent of the average annual flow of the Columbia River measured at Grand Coulee Dam. With water recapture and reuse efficiencies, an average of 3.4-million acre-feet is delivered through the canal system to CBP farms.

Crops and livestock production

Crops grown: 60
Annual contribution to Washington state farm gate value:over $600-million
Cumulative crop value: $2-billion
Property tax revenues: $9.5-million
Average value/irrigated acre: $1050
Excellent crop production and transportation systems are an important element in state, national and international trade. Major crops include apples, potatoes, onions, alfalfa hay, wheat, sweet corn, asparagus, vegetable seed, and beans. Other major sources of income are generated from dairies and cattle raised in local commercial feedlots and on CRP farmland. The development of ag processing facilities provides nearly $548-million annually in income, and employment for these operations accounts for 30 to 50 percent of all earned income within the counties located in the CBP. Products from CBP are shipped throughout the U.S. as well as overseas.

Recreation/fish and wildlife

Designated areas: 23
Size: 405,000 acres
Annual visitors: over 3-million
Water, the lifeblood of farms and families in this semi-arid region, has also transformed much of the basin into a prime area for recreation and habitat for many fish and wildlife species. Over 400,000 acres of federally owned lands and water areas are managed for public recreation and fish and wildlife purposes.Camping, boating, swimming, fishing and hunting are favorite recreation activities on project lands and lakes. Anglers seek salmon, trout, bass and other spiny ray species. Hunters find waterfowl and upland game. The variety of wildlife also attracts bird watchers, photographers and nature study groups. For further information contact me at 8582 Rd. K SW, Royal City, WA 99357 or call 509-346-9442 or

Columbia Basin Irrigation Project-The Second Half
Wheat Life - November 2004

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