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


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How the City of Spokane is Letting Its River Down

2011 Water Billboard

Mayoral water war on display. (Photo: Spokesman Review) Check out www.H2KNOW.info for a different kind of message regarding Spokane’s water.

It’s hard to forget the water wars of 2011 – the mayoral water wars that is.  Anonymous billboards went up around town questioning why – with 10 trillion gallons of water in the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer – the City of Spokane would raise water rates to induce conservation.  A mayor and a city council member lost their seats, due in part to this highly misleading message.

Abundant groundwater notwithstanding, Mother Nature, combined with a City revenue structure that incentivizes water sales, have created a one-two punch for Spokane’s “most precious resource.”   The Spokane River is flowing at near-record lows.  It doesn’t have to be this way . . . but somebody in the City of Spokane needs to speak up.

Spokane River - Sandifur Bridge - 630 cfs - 8-8-15

Spokane River flowing at 630 cfs at the Westlink Pedestrian Bridge on August 8, 2015.

The Spokane River is directly fed by the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer, so groundwater pumping by all of the municipalities in this region is causing extreme low flows.  For the last few days, the River has been dropping into the 550 cfs range.  That’s 300 cfs below the minimum flow that the Department of Ecology adopted last February, and less than half of what the flow has been this time of year for the last few years (and a third of what it was historically).  The lowest flow on record is around 450 cfs, and it seems possible that a new record may be in the offing if people don’t put the brakes on their water usage.

As the City’s Water System Plan states (and common sense tells us), summer is the season of high water use.  From October to April, monthly water demand averages 31 to 44 million gallons per day (mgd).  May through September, the average jumps to between 64 and 114 mgd.  But this year, 2015, July usage was a whopping 123 mgd.   No wonder the Spokane River is suffering.

The City of Spokane has failed the Spokane River by stepping back from reasonable water conservation planning and implementation.

  • Arizona Block Rate Chart

    Examples of inclining block rate structures in Arizona. When a higher tier kicks in sooner and goes higher, people begin to conserve. Spokane’s rate structure would fall near the bottom of this graph.

    Water rates.   A “conservation rate structure” is the most effective way to get water customers to pay attention to and cut back on their water use.  The pocket book speaks.  The basic idea – the more you use the higher your rate – creates an incentive to drop your water usage into a lower/cheaper tier.  But Spokane’s rates make very minor distinctions for higher usage – and are ineffective in encouraging Spokane citizens to turn the outdoor spigot and sprinklers down (or off).

    For example, Spokane residential customers can use “6 units” of water (about 4,500 gallons) for 28 cents/unit or $1.71.  The next “4 units” (about 3,000) gallons costs 60 cents/unit or a total of $2.41.  The next jump is to 81 cents per unit.  A household can use 15,000 gallons per month (500 gallons per day) – a large amount – for just $12 per month.  These are not conservation-inducing water rates.

  • Conservation Goals.  Washington law requires water purveyors to adopt water conservation goals.  The City’s goal is to reduce water usage by 2% each year.  It is a modest goal, but the City can’t seem to meet it (in part because the City’s water rates are so low).  In 2014, the City’s summer season water usage actually exceeded the conservation goal by 13% (goal was 8.5 billion gallons, actual use was 9.6 billion gallons).  According to the City’s 2014 Drinking Water Report, the reason the City did not meet its goals was usage by commercial/industrial users.   Clearly, this is an area where higher water rates could have a meaningful impact.
  • Water Leakage.   The City is losing a lot of water out of its “World Water II era” water mains.  The Drinking Water Report cites 17.8% leakage in 2014.   The state’s water efficiency law, adopted in 2003, requires a cities to control water leakage to a rate of 10% or less.  Twelve years and counting, many wonder when Spokane will get around to compliance.
  • Water Billing Practices.   If you are a Spokane utility customer you get a bill every month.  And it tells you how much water you’ve used.  But the City only checks your meter every 60 days or so.  So, by the time you get a bill  with actual data, it is really too late to save much water.   (Hint:  read your own meter to monitor your usage and set personal conservation goals.)
  • Water Conservation Table - Spokane WSP (draft Dec. 2014) (2)

    Spokane Water Conservation Measures (City Water System Plan, draft Dec. 2014)

    City Conservation Plan.   The City, by law, must adopt a water conservation plan every six years.   The latest plan, a December 2014 draft, identifies 19 measures (table at right).  These include water audits, low flow appliance rebates, education, and etc.  Some measures are not being implemented and some don’t even make sense.

Clearly, with record usage this year, these measures are not working, and  as mentioned, the City’s water rate system is not effective.  The City’s “Slow the Flow” campaign is virtually invisible. (And really, does anyone change their water habits based on a 3×8 inch insert in their utility bill?)

Non-profit groups Sierra Club Upper Columbia River Group and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy have taken leadership to encourage residents of Spokane to cut their water usage.   The H2KNOW campaign has billboards up and is getting media coverage.   Visit the H2KNOW.info website and Facebook page and see if you can translate a few tips on water reduction into your daily life.


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Drought Conundrums

Westlink Bridge at 1500 cfs (6-9-15)

Rocks are emerging out of the Spokane River as flows dropped from 4,000 cfs over the weekend to the 1,500 cfs shown here. (6-9-15)

You’d have to be a hermit to be unaware that Washington state is having a bad water year.    The winter of 2014-15 was very warm — 5 degrees F warmer than average.  It rained plenty, but snowed little.  And what snow there was is now mostly gone.

Spring runoff for most rivers came weeks if not months early, and rivers are now flowing at levels we’d expect to see in mid-summer.  Rivers need snowmelt to sustain flows throughout the summer.   Unless it rains, hot weather will cause an increase in water temperatures in streams and rivers.  Combined with low flows, river conditions will be hostile to salmon and trout species that need cold, abundant water to migrate and complete their life cycles.

Pacific Ocean Sea Surface Temp Anomalies (NOAA 6_8_2015)

The 2015 El Nino – Pacific Ocean Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies as of June 8, 2015 (Graphic: NOAA)

And, it probably won’t rain.  El Niño, the ocean-warming phenomenon that drives weather patterns, is present in the North Pacific.  NOAA scientists are observing high sea surface temperatures – unusual for this time of year – and predicting an 80% chance that El Nino will last through the end of the year.

Washington State University’s Agriculture Weather Network translates the El Nino phenomenon into a prediction for Washington’s summer weather:    El Nino typically “leads to warmer weather and less precipitation across much of the Pacific Northwest.”

The bottom line:  Washington state is in the midst of a very serious drought.   And, there’s potential it will become a multi-year drought — similar to California.

Given all this, questions come to mind about water management in Washington state.  In some communities, it appears we neither recognize the dangers nor are responding in a logical fashion to the risks at hand.   One way or another, money appears to be a predominant factor in drought response.

70_Percent of your water use

No comment. (Graphic: waterwiseirrigation.com)

Question:  Why is it there is a major focus on getting emergency water supplies to farmers (especially in the Yakima River basin), but municipalities such as Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane are either messaging “everything’s okay” or just not saying anything at all?  

Short Answer:  Summer is the big revenue season for municipal water suppliers (primarily because of residential outdoor irrigation).  Water purveyors do not want to signal that their customers should conserve because it will result in reduced revenue and hurt their bottom line.  Regrettably, rivers will be seriously harmed because of this ‘no-conserve’ message, which is being disseminated not just by the purveyors but also by the Dept of Ecology and the Governor’s office.

Question: Why did “junior” water users in the Yakima basin plant cherry and apple orchards and other perennial crops, even though they were fully aware they would have limited access to water during a drought?  

Short Answer:  Water users who hold “junior” or “interruptible” water rights are on notice that in a water-short year, their water supply will be cut.   When farmers with junior rights plant crops that cannot survive without regular irrigation, they are making an investment decision that involves substantial economic risk.   In reality, junior water right holders have been betting on a bail-out.  Per next item, they appear to be getting one.

ECY Drought Response Budget (ECY Website 6-9-15)

The Department of Ecology will spend millions of dollars to subsidize farmers who made bad choices about crop plantings, but only $25,000 on “conservation education. From Dept. of Ecology 2015 Drought website.

Question:  Why is the state spending millions of dollars in public subsidies for water mitigation for orchardists who are now destroying last year’s apple crops?

Short Answer:  Washington farmers are destroying large amounts of last year’s apple crop that they were unable to sell.  They blame the inability to ship to international destinations due to port slowdowns, but last year saw record apple over-production.   What are the chances that Washington state will subsidize apple crops this year that will be destroyed next year?  Indeed, the Department of Ecology is spending millions of dollars to underwrite drought leasing programs and emergency well use in the Walla Walla and Yakima River basins for agricultural users who hold junior water rights.

Washington’s Office of the Columbia River has spent nearly $200 million on water supply projects over the past 8 years, but very little of it has been directed toward water scarcity and drought response.  Instead, OCR has function more like the Office of Cadillac Desert, studying dams and other irrigation projects that, if built, will ultimately cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Question: Given drought conditions, why is the Department of Ecology issuing new water rights in areas where water supply is likely to be deficient?

Short Answer:  For the last 3 years, the state legislature has included a budget proviso requiring Ecology to issue at least 500 water right decisions each year or lose a half million dollars in budget.  This has converted the Water Resources Program into a permit factory.

One example of the ensuing folly is the proposal to issue water permits to illegal water users in the Nooksack River basin.  Agency resources for the type of water management activities critical for managing for drought have dwindled to negligible levels (e.g., metering water use, promoting water conservation, measuring available surface and ground water supplies, enforcing against illegal use).

Meanwhile, of the state’s nearly $10 million drought budget, only $25,000 is dedicated to “conservation education.”

As rivers recede, the 2015 drought promises to reveal many mysteries and closeted skeletons.    Who is making money off of drought?   How low can our rivers go?  The salmon life cycle is 2-4 years – how will the 2015 drought affect salmon returns in 2017-19?  Will farms go out of business?  Will farmers make more risk averse cropping decisions in the future?  Inquiring minds, stay tuned.


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New Eastern Washington Water Projects Simply Not Affordable

Aerial view of Grand Coulee Dam, Washington.  Columbia Basin Project, WA.

Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project beyond (USBR)

The following guest editorial was printed in the Spokesman-Review on Sunday, January 4, 2015, discussing conclusions from two recent reports evaluating the economics of the Columbia Basin and Yakima irrigation projects.

The bottom line:  eastern Washington farmers have not repaid even 10% of the portion of these projects that are allocated to agriculture (notwithstanding huge public subsidies).  Future, concrete-intensive projects will fare no better.

For more information about the questionable economics of eastern Washington irrigation projects, visit the CELP website and Naiads.  And taxpayers, keep an eye  on your wallet.

January 4, 2015

Guest opinion: Public can’t afford to subsidize new water projects

John Osborn and Ken Hammond
Special to The Spokesman-Review
Water is political currency. Politicians hold hostage worthy public programs in exchange for public funding of money-losing water supply projects.  A case in point is the Central Arizona Project or CAP – the largest, most expensive aqueduct in the United States.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson horse-traded approval of CAP in exchange for votes to enact civil rights legislation. While LBJ’s goals were worthy, it is a fact that taxpayers got stuck with most of the bill for CAP.

Similar subsidies apply to federal projects all over the West, including Eastern Washington.

To protect the public purse, objective economic analysis of water projects is a powerful tool. Two recent studies shine light on Eastern Washington’s two major federal irrigation projects: the Columbia Basin Project and the Yakima Project. Productive irrigated agriculture and local economies depend on these federal mega-projects. But the two projects have not paid for themselves – far from it. State and federal budget leaders should take heed.

A 2014 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“Availability of Information on Repayment of Water Project Costs Could Be Better Promoted”) evaluated irrigation district repayment for 130 federal water projects in the Western U.S.

At Grand Coulee Dam, the Columbia Basin Project pumps uphill 3.3 million acre-feet of river water for delivery to 670,000 acres across the Columbia Plateau.  This massive project cost $2.4 billion to construct. (In today’s dollars, the cost would be enormously higher.) Of that, $685 million was allocated to irrigated agriculture. But $495 million – nearly 75 percent – has been written off for payment by Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers, socializing the costs to millions of people paying their utility bills.

As reported by the GAO, of the $190 million left to be repaid by the irrigators, only $60 million has been paid, with payments stretched over 50 years at zero interest. On balance, irrigators have paid less than 5 percent of their share.

The Yakima Project stores and diverts 1.2 million acre-feet of water from five reservoirs in the Cascade Mountains, serving irrigation districts in Kittitas, Yakima and Benton counties. Here, construction costs total $286 million, with $149 million allocated to irrigators. The GAO reports slightly better repayment. Still, Yakima Valley irrigators have paid less than 10 percent of the total costs.

Crops grown in these federal projects don’t pay for the existing water supply infrastructure, loudly signaling that expanding these irrigation projects won’t cover costs either. Nonetheless, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has partnered with Washington’s Office of the Columbia River to pursue multibillion dollar expansions of both the Columbia Basin and Yakima projects.

Fortunately for taxpayers, federal guidelines now prohibit federal funding for water projects when costs exceed benefits. A recent economic study of expanding the Columbia Basin Project into the Odessa Subarea forced the bureau to decline funding that project.

Instead, the Office of the Columbia River has stepped into the gap to assess whether, and how much, Odessa Subarea farmers can pay to pump and deliver water to their farms. Depending on size, state subsidies of several hundred million or a few billion dollars would be needed to replace groundwater with river water for this small group of potato farmers.

The proposed Yakima water projects are similar. To expand in the Yakima, large state subsidies will be required to replace traditional federal subsidies to pay for the excess of costs over benefits.

In 2013, the cash-strapped Washington Legislature wisely tasked independent economists to study the latest Yakima Basin proposal.  In December, a team of Washington State Water Resource Center economists concluded that costs of water supply projects in the Yakima Basin – including new dams – outweigh benefits by 90 percent or more. In contrast, proposed fisheries enhancement projects of importance to tribes and the general public are cost effective. (Read: “Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan Projects.”)

Public subsidy for new irrigation projects needs to end. Dust Bowl-era justifications no longer apply to an increasingly corporate agricultural sector. Governments struggle to pay for public necessities such as education, health care and even maintenance backlogs for existing dams and water projects. New and expanded water projects are simply not affordable.

We are at the end of the water frontier. Water-project proponents in Washington, D.C., and Olympia must acknowledge that federal irrigation projects in Eastern Washington don’t pencil out. It is time to end wasteful feasibility studies, close the chapter and move on. There are more affordable means of sustaining profitable agriculture in Eastern Washington.

John Osborn is a Spokane physician and conservationist with the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Sierra Club. See celp.org.  Ken Hammond is retired professor and chairman of the department of geography at Central Washington University and has been active for decades in water planning.