State placing $200 million bet on dam building - Expensive push to explore water storage in Eastern Washington
By ROBERT McCLURE
As dams nationwide are being dismantled at a rapid clip, the Washington Legislature is about to spend $200 million on what amounts to a big-ticket bet that the federal government will launch its most expensive dam-building campaign in decades.
To slake Eastern Washington's thirst, water would be siphoned off the West's largest river, the Columbia, and stored behind dams in massive lakes -- although no one is sure yet whether such water would even be available.
Until now, the prospect of Eastern Washington dam-building has gotten little attention in the Seattle area. But, "That's all right -- you'll end up paying for it," predicted Spokane water lawyer Rachael Paschal Osborn.
Legislators, lobbyists and others heaped on the praise when Gov. Christine Gregoire declared "the gridlock is over" as she signed the first of two bills needed to start the dam-building campaign. The second is expected to pass today or Thursday.
But left largely unsaid is the fact that the new laws are really only the uncertain start of a solution to Eastern Washington's water problems.
With state help, the federal Bureau of Reclamation is exploring 15 canyons, depressions and other sites in Eastern Washington where dams might be used to store water in winter and spring. Two-thirds of the water would go on crops, a third to cool the Columbia in the depths of summer when the river's temperatures grow lethal for salmon.
No one has figured out how to pay for this. The most expensive dam envisioned could cost $4 billion. The reclamation bureau's entire annual budget is less than $1 billion. Congress hasn't funded a water-storing dam this pricey in decades. A $200 million funding bill pending in the Legislature is just a start; part of it would be used to investigate potential dam sites.
And critics fear that the new law would allow the state to give farmers more water now -- without knowing how much water ultimately will be available.
"It's not as simple as saying we're going to donate blood to ourselves and keep it for later, because the river, when it donates, can't manufacture more blood the way our bodies can," said Shirley Waters Nixon, a lawyer at the Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy.
"Here we're taking blood out of our system, but we don't have a natural way of replenishing it."
Several Indian tribes also have objected, in part because they were not consulted.
"We're feeling a little burned," said Bob Heinith, a biologist for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. He said the whole notion is predicated on taking "extra" water out of the Columbia in the spring, when in fact the water is needed to push young fish seaward, to signal adult fish that it is time to spawn and to flood riverside areas where young salmon can hide from predators and grow strong before heading to sea.
But Gregoire and her lieutenants, along with legislators from both parties, say the hard-won compromise embodied in the bill she signed last month and a pending measure authorizing $200 million in borrowing are the best hope for fish and farmers.
"Everybody wins here," said Jay Manning, director of the state Ecology Department. "This could very well form the backbone of salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin."
Water for salmon
While the Columbia reaches its full power in Washington, its tributaries reach into Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Canada and even a sliver of Nevada. It drains an area larger than France.
For years, Indian tribes and conservationists have gone to court to help ensure more water for the river's salmon runs, many of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. In the past century, the number of salmon returning to spawn dipped from a high of 16 million a year to about 1 million.
The state turned for help to the National Academy of Sciences. In 2004 an expert panel from the academy concluded that "Columbia River salmon today are at a critical point" and that Washington should coordinate recovery efforts with the upstream states and Canada.
That hasn't happened.
"They seem to have worked in a vacuum," said Julie Carter, a lawyer for the tribal fish commission.
But "it's not as if we're unwilling to discuss it" with other governments, including tribal governments, said Gerry O'Keefe, the Ecology Department's Columbia River coordinator.
The science academy's study also is cited by supporters of the dam project, because it emphasizes the dangers to salmon from high temperatures and low river flows in July and August. Those supporters include the environmental groups American Rivers and the Washington Environmental Council.
"It's a step forward for water management along the Columbia River," said Rob Masonis, director of American Rivers' Seattle office.
He emphasizes that the law doesn't require the building of dams -- only that they be given serious consideration. And there will be plenty of time to argue about the specifics when the environmental impacts are evaluated, say conservationists who support the new law.
Still, building dams is clearly what many are aiming for.
"We need to start looking at this again," said Bureau of Reclamation engineer Kim McCartney. "It's the old pendulum thing. We built a lot of stuff in the '50s and '60s and it swung back in the '70s and '80s and nothing was really built. And now it's starting to swing back."
Era of dam destruction
This new push for dam building comes at a time when, across the country, several dozen dams are dismantled each year -- some because they lower oxygen levels in water and allow streams to heat up to temperatures unhealthy for fish.
"We haven't solved those problems, and yet we're going out and proposing to build more dams," said Osborn, the Spokane water lawyer.
What makes critics most uncomfortable is that the same legislation kicking off what could be a dam-building campaign also sets up ill-defined "voluntary regional agreements" on water use that the Ecology Department can approve.
The idea is that those agreements would conserve water. Farmers could work out among themselves who needs water the most and who can afford to install water-conserving measures, such as lining canals so they don't leak.
But the same provision allows the Ecology Department to hand out water in areas where it hasn't for years. Once the rights to the water are handed out, they become permanent. The law says this can have "no negative impact" on the Columbia in July and August. That sounds reassuring, but it would be a new legal standard.
"It's this wide-open authority that bothers us," said Nixon, the Seattle water lawyer. "We're lawyers. What does 'no negative impact' mean? Does that mean no reduction in stream flows?"
A driving force behind the dam-building campaign is a problem left over from the past century.
A 1,100-square-mile section of the state east of Moses Lake was supposed to have gotten irrigation water from dams envisioned early last century. Farmers moved in, and the state allowed them to start pumping water out of the ground. The thinking was that the groundwater would last until more dams were built and more water was available.
It didn't work that way. Groundwater levels in what's known as the "Odessa sub area" have plummeted. Farmers could be facing bankruptcy.
"We feel a sense of urgency about that," said Manning, the Ecology Department's director.
Eleven potential dam sites are to be investigated if the 10-year, $200 million funding bill passes. In addition, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has already launched a study of four places to store water near Yakima. The biggest one, which has a lot of political support in the Yakima area, is known as Black Rock.
"We think big Black Rock has to be built. If it's $4 billion, it's $4 billion. Let's get on with it," said Tom Carpenter, who grows wine grapes, hops and other crops near Yakima. "I wear a Mariner hat and I get over to that ballpark in Seattle sometimes. I don't think that stadium got put up without state help, and it's not cheap."
Norbert Ries, head of the bureau's Yakima office, said federal officials are looking to Washington to put up substantial funding.
"If the state thinks it's good, the state needs to cough up some of its hard-earned money to show us they think it's good," Ries said.
But, he warned, "There are probably other watersheds out there that the state is going to have to deal with (who) want their reservoir analyzed and built, too."
Would federal money be forthcoming? Recall that funding for education and veterans' health and other needs is being cut, said Alex Glass, a spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
"The outlook right now is unfortunately that we're facing incredibly tight budget times and the federal government is not going to be able to provide many dollars," Glass said. "That said, the projects that do get priority are the projects that entire communities get behind, and (that) have broad-based support."
Critics say there are alternatives to building big dams to store Columbia River water. Among them:
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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