Water: law/policy/politics/ethics/art/science

Washington State Odessa Water Project Threatens Columbia River Treaty

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Grand Coulee dam and the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, where Odessa diversions will take water from the river. Photo: National Park Service

The Washington Department of Ecology, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced on Tuesday, March 11, their intent to go forward with plans to divert more water from the Columbia River and further drain Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir backed up by Grand Coulee dam.

Lake Roosevelt is a linch pin in the coordinated operation of numerous dams and reservoirs on the Columbia River and tributaries.  The coordination occurs pursuant to the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada.   Both countries are preparing to enter into discussions about modernization of the Treaty,  potentially as early as September of this year.

Notwithstanding years of Treaty review and preparation by U.S. and British Columbian agencies, the Dept of Ecology is moving forward without consideration of the consequences of allocating more water out of the river.  Last year, the B.C. Ministry of Energy issued a report analyzing the benefits of Canadian reservoirs to the U.S.  The report called out the diversion and use of Lake Roosevelt water supply as a major benefit to the U.S. that is not included in the calculations to  equalize the value and costs to each country for participation in the Treaty.

Because of changes in flood control that will commence in 2024, the future Treaty will require substantial additional drawdowns at Lake Roosevelt and other reservoirs in the system.  By allocating new water rights from the Columbia River, Ecology and the Bureau of Reclamation are de-stabilizing the potential for an amicable resolution of the Treaty.

There are a variety of other issues

 associated with the Odessa Water Project.  The new water rights will bail out irrigators who, for more than 40 years, have deliberately depleted public groundwater reserves.  While the State of Washington often asserts that the Odessa farmers were “promised” Columbia River water, this is an inaccurate and misleading account of the history.   Most Odessa farmers rejected the offer of federal irrigation project water, and continue to profitably engage in dryland wheat farming.  This is evident in the patchwork lay out of lands that are slated to receive new water – a highly inefficient and costly approach to water delivery.

This raises another problem.  The Odessa Water Project represents a huge subsidy to the recipient farms.  As demonstrated by independent economic analysis, Odessa irrigators will never be able to repay U.S. and Washington state taxpayers the costs to deliver water to their farms.  The cost-benefit analysis prepared as part of the Environmental Impact Statement is deeply flawed in its economic assumptions and conclusions.

The Odessa Project also affects the rights and interests of Native American tribes in the region.  And, as documented by the National Academy of Sciences and the Bureau of Reclamation, the Columbia River is already over-appropriated with respect to water rights, particularly when considered in the context of  endangered salmon recovery.


he impacts of climate change on basin hydrology are expected to make water management more difficult, particularly during summer months when the Odessa Project will be removing water from the river. And, the recent discovery of structural defects at Wanapum dam on the mid-Columbia River reveals the folly of assuming reliability of the dam and reservoir system for all time, as is assumed by the issuance of the Odessa Project water rights “in perpetuity”


Author: naiads

Opinionated (retired) public interest water lawyer

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