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Columbia Basin Farmers Rejoice But Some Environmentalists Worry Over Plans For A Key Irrigation Pipeline

By, Craig Welch, The Seattle Times
 
OTHELLO, Adams County
Orman Johnson's spuds are out of the ground now, piled in sheds longer than football fields, each stuffed with enough tubers to feed Seattle for half a year.

Like most of Washington's 9 billion pounds of potatoes, the farmer's thirsty crop is grown where less rain falls annually than Seattle may get in six weeks. And the well water that supplies Johnson's farm is disappearing.

So the federal government is doing what once had been unthinkable. It's building a new stretch of pipeline and draining more water from the Columbia River system to aid farmers.

The pipeline is approved to carry just a trickle -- nowhere near enough to solve all the region's water woes. And getting even that much took a hard-fought compromise among state lawmakers, farmers and some environmentalists.

But the project signals an important moment: North America's French fry capital is at a crossroads, and the survival of some potato farms may hinge on drawing far more water from the river.

That could cost billions of dollars for more canals or pumping stations, perhaps even a new dam.

A lot is riding on what happens next: the fabric of Eastern Washington, a sizable bite of the state's economy, and future management of the troubled Columbia and its dwindling salmon runs.

As a result, the new $25 million pipeline inspires hope and ire. Farmers see it as a step toward their salvation. It will be large enough to accommodate massive future withdrawals from the Columbia, even though such withdrawals are still officially just being studied. One proposal calls for diverting enough new river water to irrigate an area half the size of Mount Rainier National Park.

"The primary purpose of this is just to maintain what we have," said Mike Schwisow, an Olympia lobbyist who represents water users like Johnson.

Farmers maintain that the river holds plenty of water and taking more is merely about timing and creativity. The federal government and the state plan to link the small initial diversion to new releases from Lake Roosevelt, which some environmental groups agree could help both farms and fish.

But others fear what the pipe's capacity implies: that the state and federal governments are committing to massive new future withdrawals â€" before the money has been found and before the larger environmental implications are understood.

With a major aquifer drying up, climate change threatening to intensify demand for water and the U.S. economy struggling, those environmental advocates have filed lawsuits and fought water projects and suggest what no one else dares: Perhaps it's time to rethink what's grown in parts of Eastern Washington.

"I don't think they should spend public money on a pipeline to nowhere," said Rachael Paschal Osborn, director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Spokane. "I think that a lot of farmers need to accept that they may have to revert to dryland farming."

Spuds big business

For farmers like Johnson, the future is about the fry.

On a sunny winter day, he piloted his pickup past irrigation sprinklers and pulled up to a shed that held a cache of russets. Inside the damp, earthy-smelling structure, he stood gingerly on an 18-foot-high pile of potatoes.

Agriculture in Washington brings in more money than software or airplanes, and potatoes are the state's second-biggest crop, behind apples. Eastern Washington grows nearly a quarter of the nation's spuds, most of which get processed and shipped around the world as French fries.

Johnson held out a crooked, deformed potato. "But when they get too little water, they take a siesta while they're growing," he said. "They clench up to conserve energy and turn out like this."

Those potatoes get rejected by processing-plant machinery and bring farmers a fraction of the money. Johnson hasn't had quality trouble yet, but only because his water is vanishing so consistently that he has been able to plan ahead.

Thousands of farmers in the Columbia Basin get the bulk of their water from the river, but Johnson is among thousands more who still mostly draw water from an aquifer that is declining in some places dozens of feet a year. Some have spent thousands "even millions" deepening their wells and chasing water.

By one estimate, about 40 percent of wells are in serious decline. Johnson used to be able to irrigate a dozen 120-acre circular plots at about 9,600 gallons a minute. Now he pumps about 6,000 gallons a minute, enough to water only seven and a half of those circles. In a few years he expects it will be closer to six.

"We already shut two of our seven wells off in August and September," he said.

Dozens of these farmers grow potatoes, helping drive a half-billion-dollar annual spud economy. A few have transitioned back to dryland wheat or low-water crops like canola, but the gross value can be 10 percent of what farmers earn growing potatoes.

"My grandfather moved here in 1906 and did dryland farming until we got our first well in '62," said Johnson, who also grows grass seed and asparagus, and rents land to others to grow wheat. "We're just not very good at dryland anymore."

At the bottleneck

Earlier the same day, 40 miles north, Johnson crawled down the concrete side of an empty irrigation canal to see for himself why his farm can't get more water. He and Craig Simpson, who heads the local irrigation district, stepped into the 15-foot-high mouth of an underground pipeline.

Beside them, a concrete slab covered a spot where a second pipe was meant to go.

"It's in pretty good shape for being 60 years old, don't you think?" Simpson said, his voice echoing.

Canals and pipes keep Eastern Washington blooming. During growing seasons they flow like fast streams, carrying irrigation water from the Columbia.

But just north of Interstate 90, this tunnel constricts the system. Only a fraction of the flow reaches farms downstream.

It was intended to be this way, just not for so long. The Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1942, was initiated as a massive irrigation project and a regional source of hydropower. It would hold water and funnel it to smaller reservoirs and through ditches and ultimately irrigate 1 million acres of desert.

The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project was to be built in phases, but financial and environmental costs stalled construction in the 1980s.

By then, more people already claimed rights to Columbia River water than the river's vast drainage supplied. Irrigation already drew water from salmon-spawning tributaries and kept them too low and too hot for fish. Farmers and fish need water at the same time â€" late summer.

Salmon advocates feared the river couldn't handle more withdrawals. Water made it to only 671,000 of the 1 million acres envisioned, and farmers felt they'd been promised more.

Pressure built on Congress and the Legislature, and in 2006 lawmakers compromised: The state and federal government would conserve water, but also get more out of the system, some for farms and some for fish, even if it meant building a new dam.

"The major players stopped fighting over whether or not water should be taken from the river and started to focus on developing new supplies," said Dan Haller, with the state Department of Ecology.

Gov. Chris Gregoire agreed to draw down Lake Roosevelt and release billions of gallons â€" one-third for fish, one-third as drinking water for growing cities, and one-third to flow in a trickle through a new pipe for farmers. This spring, contractors will construct that 9,000 feet of pipe in two sections alongside the tunnel where Johnson stood; it will funnel water to about 10,000 acres.

Stimulus money is footing the bill, but irrigators may ultimately be on the hook to pay back costs.

As a first step, "it's a fair compromise," said Michael Garrity, with American Rivers, an environmental group. "But it doesn't say what the ideal amount of water or ideal combination of irrigated verses dryland agriculture is in that area."

Proposals to bring far more water to the region are just around the corner.

Room for more

The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project is back.

"Some people have said you don't need a pipe that big, and the answer, of course, is 'absolutely not,' " said Jim Blanchard, who oversees parts of the project for the Bureau of Reclamation. "But you don't build two miles of little itty-bitty pipe just to get a little bit of water. When you build a facility out here, you build it to its next logical size."

Later this year, the Bureau of Reclamation plans to detail options for getting more Columbia River water "lots more" to farmers. One idea calls for drawing 10-fold more water, enough to irrigate 102,000 acres and take farmers off declining wells.

For those future withdrawals to work without harming salmon, Blanchard said, water would have to come from Lake Roosevelt or somewhere else in early winter when it's not needed, and be "stacked up someplace to be released later for crops."

That could involve building a new dam or reservoir.

Blanchard's agency is still evaluating the costs of various options, but he conceded each would be expensive. "There's no way to build anything cheaply anymore."

It's not clear if new irrigation storage is feasible. A previous plan to flood a bunchgrass and balsamroot valley outside Yakima and cage it behind a 595-foot-high dam seems to have fizzled. The state and Congress spent millions of dollars studying the Black Rock Dam, but the ultimate price tag " $2 billion or more" struck some as too high. Others disagreed.

"When I was in Congress in the 1980s, we had a drought every 10 years," said former GOP Congressman Sid Morrison, who chairs a group seeking new Yakima Basin storage. "Now drought is about one out of four. The economy of this area is so dependent on water that when that gets tweaked by climate change, we'll be in trouble."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or

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cwelch@seattletimes.com