Officials Begin Another Study
by Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
ODESSA, Wash. -- In the past four years, Clark Kagele has replaced two of the four wells on his 1,700-acre central Washington farm after the wells went dry. The cost: nearly $1 million.
Kagele was lucky. His new wells actually tapped clean water. A neighbor down the road spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to dig a deeper well only to draw air. Another tapped into a salty liquid that had to be treated before it could be applied to his fields.
So goes the story of farming atop the Odessa aquifer, a large, underground water source that feeds some 270,000 acres as a temporary substitute for surface water irrigation. Farmers first dug the wells in the 1960s, believing that the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project would eventually be completed. Countless studies and four decades later, the aquifer remains the primary source of water for crops, and wells that were intended to last only a few years are going dry.
Now state and federal authorities are starting yet another study of the feasibility of bringing water to the arid land. Two public comment sessions are scheduled for Feb. 22 in Moses Lake - none too soon for farmers like Kagele.
"The problem is that the economic viability of these areas are going to diminish quickly without water. There's already been instances of farmers losing their livelihood," Kagele said, looking out at the fields where he grows wheat, peas, canola and potatoes. "We've been sitting here waiting. I don't know how much longer we can wait."
The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project is fed by water impounded behind Grand Coulee Dam, which was completed in 1942. Congress originally authorized the project to irrigate about 1.1 million acres, but only about 600,000 acres were developed before Congress cut spending for large Western water projects.
Farmers in the undeveloped area received permission from the state to dig wells as a temporary water source while they wait for surface water. About two-thirds of the Odessa aquifer lies under that area, and the impact of drawing water from it was noticed immediately.
By 1967, the state had imposed a moratorium on new wells. The state then adopted new rules in 1974 intended to control the rate of decline, but not stop it, said Ken Slattery, program manager for the state Department of Ecology's water resources program.
The rules allow for declines of no more than 30 feet every three years, and no more than 300 feet total - a number that is quickly approaching in some areas.
"The intent was to allow the decline to occur so you could maximize the economic benefit to the area while waiting for the project to be completed. The assumption was always that the project would be completed and those people would have water forever," Slattery said.
As part of the study, for which the state pitched in $600,000, researchers will create a computer model of the groundwater system to find out how many people would need to stop using their wells to stabilize the aquifer.
The study also will review several proposals for easing farmers' concerns. They include a plan to tap into one of the existing canals on the project to get surface water to those closest to it. Another proposal entails modifying the operation of Potholes reservoir, south of Moses Lake, to store more water at different times of year.
Lawmakers in Olympia have tried to help. The Senate passed a bill intended to ensure that Odessa-area farmers will not lose their water rights under the state's use-it-or-lose-it law if they rotate to dry-land crops or their well goes dry.
Lawmakers also approved a bill seeking to make more water available in the future by increasing storage in new reservoirs. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the bill Thursday.
Kagele, though, and other farmers like him most want to see the irrigation project completed.
A 1989 environmental review, the last major study of the project, estimated the cost for completing the second half of the project at more than $1 billion. The idea was quickly shelved as concerns about endangered species - particularly salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River - became more heated.
Whether completing the second half of the project is feasible today remains to be seen. Key to any proposal: engineering, impact to the environment, and of course, money, said Bill Gray, deputy manager of the Upper Columbia area for the Bureau of Reclamation.
"Any large project is built because everything just happens to line up - the need, the economics," Gray said. "If this became a priority with the state, with the federal government, with the local folks, it certainly could be built."
At the same time, Gray said he hopes stakeholders come to the meetings with plenty of ideas beyond just completing the project.
"There's only so much money, and you have to prioritize," he said. "I actually think a lot of people are going to come and say, 'Money is really tight, and even if we wanted to build the second half of the project, it's not going to happen, but how can we incorporate existing infrastructure as best we can to deal with Odessa.'
"Maybe I'm an optimist."
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