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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  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.

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Washington State Odessa Water Project Threatens Columbia River Treaty


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

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Spokane River Instream Flow Rule to be Launched

Spokane Low Flow (2010)

This graph shows the lowest flow of the year, every year between 1891 and 2010, as measured at the Spokane gage (just downstream of Monroe St. Bridge).

The Washington Department of Ecology announced today that it is launching an effort to protect instream flows in the Spokane River.   This is good news for river advocates, but must be taken with a dose of salt.

The Spokane River needs some help when it comes to instream flows, which have been steadily in decline for decades (see graph at right).   The problem is largely due to groundwater overpumping in both Washington and Idaho.  The Spokane Aquifer feeds the Spokane River, so pumping groundwater has a direct and negative impact on instream flows.

In Washington, river flows are protected by formal adoption of a rule that specifies how much water should be in the river during certain dates throughout the year (usually two week intervals).   These rule-based flows are basically a water right for the river.  Pre-existing water rights that were issued before adoption of the flow rule are not affected, and water rights issued after the flow rule are subject to curtailment when the flows are not met.   The system is not perfect, but it does provide a measure of protection against further degradation of rivers that lack sufficient water (such as the Spokane).

Ecology announced today that it will begin the formal rulemaking process, which should take about 18 months to complete, and will involve a fair amount of public process.

Spokane River 2003 low flows just above TJ Meenach Bridge

The purpose of instream flows is to protect public values in rivers.   For the Spokane, that means protecting water quality, fisheries, recreation, and scenic values.   An important question for Spokane River advocates to ask as this process unfolds:   Will the flows that Ecology proposes be sufficient to protect these values?

In a 2012 memo, and a 2013 presentation, Ecology stated that it intends to adopt a summertime flow of 850 cubic feet per second.  The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife provided technical analysis.  But nowhere in the studies is there discussion of adequate flows for recreation and scenic values.   Alternative views about the amount of water that the Spokane River needs and other issues, submitted by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, are set forth here.  (The back story is that the City of Spokane has proposed flows as low as 460 cfs, and Ecology believes it can split the baby).

Washington’s instream flow program got a big boost last October, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the Skagit River instream flow rule is designed to protect the river, and cannot be subordinated to water for future development.  (See Naiads post Skagit River Wins Big in Court (10-3-13)).

Despite the Skagit court decision, Ecology continues to issue new water rights that impinge on instream flows.   Litigation challenging Ecology is underway involving the Nisqually and Deschutes Rivers (issuance of new water right to City of Yelm, near Olympia), the Similkameen River (issuance of new water right for Enloe Dam, near Oroville), and the Columbia River (issuance of new water right to Kennewick Hospital, see Naiads post Washington Rivers: For Sale).

As the Spokane flow rule develops, those who care should closely question how this “water right for the river” will truly protect the river.

  • Will the flow rule really protect Spokane River water quality, fisheries, recreation, and scenic values?
  • Will the flow rule protect higher flows that occur some years, and provide important diversity in habitat and river channel maintenance?
  • Will the flow rule prevent issuance of future water rights to the detriment of the river?   (Of particular concern is the Department of Ecology’s obsession with obtaining new water for Columbia basin irrigation – the Spokane River is a potential source).
  • How will the Spokane River instream flow rule connect with new pumping on the Rathdrum Prairie in Idaho?

The coming year will present an important opportunity to advocate for the Spokane River.  Stay tuned.

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Washington Rivers: For Sale

For Sale: Washington’s rivers and streams
(map: Dept of Ecology)

Okanogan Wilderness League has filed an appeal of a new water right decision, challenging the Washington Department of Ecology’s authority to issue water rights from the Columbia River that are not conditioned on maintaining instream flows.  The appeal also challenges Ecology’s use of “out-of-kind” mitigation that allows the user to pay into a state fund for habitat restoration projects instead of curtailing pumping when river flows are too low.  The price?  $35.00 for every 325,000 gallons sold, er, pumped.

Link here for OWL’s press release regarding its appeal.

New water rights are hard to come by in Washington State.  Most of the state’s rivers and aquifers are over-allocated, particularly during summer months when water demand is high, but rivers are over-heated and lack adequate flows to support healthy fisheries.

These days, almost all new water rights involve purchase and transfer of existing rights, trust water rights, water banking, or other “water-for-water” offsets.   However, in February 2013, the Department of Ecology adopted a water right mitigation policy authorizing itself to issue new water rights based on “out-of-kind” mitigation – that is, a water user can restore habitat or simply pay money in order to get a new water right.

At first blush, habitat restoration is an appealing concept.  Why not restore a wetland, or stabilize a shoreline, or put some logs in a river if it helps aquatic habitat?  The problem is that water is irreplaceable – insufficient quantities of water in a river present a unique problem that usually cannot be fixed by restoring another part of the ecosystem.

The other problem is that would-be water users are very happy to pay into a fund to obtain a water right that will last forever.   Water, after all, is far more valuable than money.

On September 30, 2013, the Department of Ecology issued a large new water right to Kennewick Hospital, now known as Trios Health.  Trios was bequeathed property south of the Tri-Cities, on the Columbia River, and wants to convert it to irrigated land and sell it.  The buyer is Easterday Farms, a large corporate agricultural outfit.  (Easterday Farms is the vegetable growing arm of the family business that also runs Easterday Ranches, owner of massive cattle feedlots in eastern Washington.  More on them at a later date.)

New, unmitigated water rights cannot be had from the Columbia River.   New rights must be conditioned with instream flows or offset with water from another source.  Notwithstanding this rule (discussed in the 10-3-13 Naiads post re the Skagit River court decision), Ecology issued the new right requiring only that Trios pay $35 per acre foot per year into a state fund, up to a maximum of $6 million over a 40-year period in exchange for a water right that will last forever.   Ecology will use these funds to pay for about a dozen habitat restoration projects in the Yakima, Snake and Walla Walla River basins.

The Trios water right is the first unmitigated, non-interruptible water right to issue for Columbia River waters since salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act.  Ecology claims that this is a unique situation and a rare use of the out-of-kind mitigation policy.  But at least two other recent, large water rights have been issued that rely on off-site habitat restoration as a basis for issuing the right (the City of Olympia/Lacey/Yelm water right package and the Okanogan PUD right for the Enloe dam project on the Similkameen River).

$35 per acre foot equates to $1.00 for every 9,300 gallons of water used.  The public’s water resources have not only been sold, but at a bargain basement rate.

It appears that Washington’s waterways are now officially for sale.

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Cow Pie Water Wars Continue

Cattle in Streams (

Washington State ranchers are threatening to go the Legislature in 2014 to defend their “right” to pollute state waterways.

It has long been understood that cows pollute.  A lot.  A mature cow produces between 120 to 150 pounds of manure, etc. each day.  And where the cow has access to a stream, it will cause all kinds of problems, including pathogenic pollution that is harmful to humans and aquatic life.   Cattle trample stream beds and banks, causing erosion and destroying riparian vegetation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists livestock manure as one of the last major uncontrolled sources of contaminants in the United States. (See charts at the end of this article).

On August 15, 2013, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state water pollution agency does have authority to order cows out of streams to protect water quality and aquatic habitat.  In Lemire v. Department of Ecology, the Court held that the state water pollution act is stronger than the federal Clean Water Act, and authorizes enforcement against ranching operations that pollute public waterways.

According to an article in the Oct. 12, 2013 Spokesman-Review, representatives of the agricultural community are now asserting that they intend to try to change the law, rather than clean up state streams.

Washington has a number of laws and programs to assist ranchers to get their cattle out of state waterways.   State policy allows ranchers to divert water to stock tanks, without a water right, to make sure their cattle have water.  For better or worse, ranchers are allowed to pump unlimited use of groundwater with a permit.  Any argument that ranchers must have access to streams in order to provide water their cattle is simply not true.

The Washington State Conservation Commission  offers several programs to help farmers protect streams.  The Voluntary Stewardship Program provides financial incentives for ranchers and farmers to protect streamside areas in lieu of Growth Management Act critical areas ordinances – a controversial step back from growth planning that was adopted to satisfy the agricultural community.

CREP buffers in Whatcom County (Photo: Washington Conservation Commission)

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a joint state-federal funding program that pays ranchers to restore riparian habitat and create no-cow zones along streams.   The program results are phenomenal, including more than 1,000 projects in Washington, 735 miles of streams protected, 5.2 million native trees and shrubs planted, and 1.5 million feet of fencing.  At no cost to the landowner.

21st century environmental management has moved on from the 19th century mentality that a landowner can do anything he or she wants with her property.   There’s an ancient Latin expression – “sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedus” – which roughly translates to mean that a person’s right to use their property does not include the right to injure the property of others.  (It’s also been described as “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”)

Perhaps most important, Washington’s waters are owned by the public. No one has the right to pollute the commons.   This is a principle that should not – and indeed cannot – be legislated away.


From EPA’s Animal Feeding Operation Website:

Table 1 Reference: National Water Quality Inventory: 1998 Report to Congress (EPA, 2000a). AFOs are a subset of the agriculture category. Summaries of impairment by other sources are not presented here.

Table 1. Summary of U.S. Water Quality Impairment Survey
Total Quantity in US Amount of Waters Surveyed Quantity Impaired by All Sources Quantity Impaired by Agriculture
Rivers             3,662,255 miles 23% of total 840,402 miles 36% of surveyed 248,028 miles 59% of impaired 170,750 miles
Lakes, Ponds, and Reservoirs             41,600,000 acres 42% of total       17,400,000 acres 39% of surveyed 6,541,060 acres 31% of impaired 2,417,801 acres
Estuaries             90,500 square miles 32% of total 28,889 sq. miles 38% of surveyed 11,025 sq.miles 15% of impaired 1,827 sq. miles
Table 2. Five Leading Pollutants Causing Water Quality Impairment in the U.S. (Percent of incidence of each pollutant is shown in parentheses, e.g.,  siltation is listed as a cause of impairment in 38% of impaired river miles.)
Rank Rivers Lakes Estuaries
1 Siltation (38%) Nutrients (44%) Pathogens (47%)
2 Pathogens (36%) Metals (27%) Oxygen-Depleting Substances (42%)
3 Nutrients (29%) Siltation (15%) Metals (23%)
4 Oxygen-Depleting Substances (23%) Oxygen-Depleting Substances (14%) Nutrients (23%)
5 Metals (21%) Suspended Solids (10%) Thermal Modifications (18%)


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Skagit River Wins in Court

Skagit River basin map (USFWS 2013). This map shows just a handful of the thousands of tributaries that support Skagit salmon runs.

Here’s a good question:

“How does one put a dollar value on being in the presence of crystal clear water coursing down a steep slope through a rock-lined, moss-edged stream bed among evergreen trees, for example?  While commercial uses of the state’s instream flows might be made — tourism and paid-for recreation, for example — such uses do not entail the total benefits derived from streams and lakes.”

The Washington State Supreme Court posed this question today in its decision ruling in favor of Washington’s rivers.  At issue was whether the instream flows set by rule for the Skagit River and tributaries may be annulled in favor of development for rural housing and other uses.   The Court said ‘no’ – these instream flow rules are “water rights for the river,” and can only be revoked under narrow circumstances.

The ruling affects not only the Skagit, but several other rivers in for which recently adopted instream flow rules create development ‘reserves,’ including the Stillaguamish, Quilcene-Snow, Salmon-Washougal, Lewis, Wenatchee, and Entiat Rivers.  The ruling will also affect Ecology’s issuance of individual water rights that supercede instream flows without substantial justification.

Over time Washington’s water laws, which historically favored diversion of water for out-of-stream uses, have evolved.  In 1917, when the state Water Code was first enacted, the goal was headlong water development for irrigation, public water supply, industrial and other out-of-stream uses.

Starting in 1969, Washington water policy began to change.  The Legislature enacted a minimum instream flow program that creates instream flows (water rights for rivers) to protect aquatic habitat, recreation, navigation, water quality, and other instream uses.   As the Court noted in today’s decision, the goals have changed from helter-skelter development to focus on prudent water management, preservation of water in streams and lakes to protect public values, and avoidance of wasteful practices.

Skagit Forks – the last remaining stand of riparian forest on the lower Skagit River (WA Wildlife & Recreation Coalition)

The Skagit River is a big river, but many tributaries to the Skagit are water-stressed due to rural development and climate change impacts.   These tributaries provide important habitat for salmon spawning and rearing and indeed the Skagit is the only river in Washington that supports all six species of salmon and steelhead.

The Washington Department of Ecology adopted instream flows for the Skagit River and its tributaries, but then created “reserves” that allocate 2% of these instream water rights for out-of-stream use.    As a legal basis for these reserves, Ecology relied on a statutory exception called OCPI – “overriding considerations of the public interest.”

The Court rejected Ecology’s interpretation of the OCPI for two reasons.  First, instream flow rights are like any other water right, and exceptions that allow infringement of these rights must be very narrow.  Ecology’s broad program of “reserves” for future growth is a not a narrow approach.

Second, the Court rejected Ecology’s argument that it could use OCPI to grant new water rights that otherwise could not be obtained.   The Court found that the benefits of instream  flows are not just quantified in dollar terms, but in public values that transcend monetary quantification.  See quote above.

The decision in Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology is a big win for rivers and people who love rivers and/or depend on them for their livelihood and culture.