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New Report Debunks Washington’s Dam-Building Program

sandhill-cranes-kathy-admire

Sandhill cranes migrate through Lower Crab Creek, where the Office of Columbia River spent millions studying a new dam that could not be built. (Photo: Kathy Admire)

Over the past ten years the Washington Department of Ecology Office of the Columbia River (OCR) has spent $200 million financed by taxpayer-backed bonds in an attempt to build more dams and increase water supplies in eastern Washington.  OCR is quite adept at touting its achievements, particularly when the legislative budget process rolls around.

However, a new, independent report by Power Consulting of Missoula concludes that the OCR is overstating its accomplishments, and suggests that the Washington Legislature should seek a performance audit of the program before it considers shelling out any more of the public’s cash.  Specifically, the Power Report concludes that OCR has:

  • Misrepresented the amount of water that it has actually put to use in eastern Washington,
  • Failed to acknowledge the need for hundreds of millions more dollars to bring current projects to fruition, and
  • Wasted a lot of money investigating proposed new dams that it should have known could never be built.

The report, Department of Ecology Office of Columbia River: The Last Ten Years, examines OCR’s decade long agenda of studying dam sites and developing water projects, with in-depth review of the Odessa Subarea water project, the Yakima Integrated Water Plan, and the Icicle Strategy .   The conclusions are eye-opening.

For example, OCR claims credit for “developing” nearly 400,000 acre-feet of water for new supply.  Most of this is not “new” water, and instead would be re-allocated out of existing reservoirs.  Of that water, most has not been delivered to water users.  This is because of the enormous and expensive infrastructure needed to move water from the reservoirs to the farms that are the intended beneficiaries.

The Power Report also evaluates the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Plan, and concludes that assumptions about the benefits of its expensive water storage projects are speculative and implausible.  The proposed storage reservoirs could cost Washington taxpayers as much as $2 billion.

The Report builds on earlier studies that conclude the benefits of building more dams in the Yakima River watershed cannot be justified by the costs. A study by WSU’s Water Resources Research Center, “Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan Projects,” concluded that the Yakima Plan’s proposed storage projects would result in economic losses.  However, providing fish passage at existing reservoirs and utilizing water right markets, the Yakima Plan could achieve the goals of the Plan, but at a much improved benefit-cost ratio.

The Power Report also evaluated the Odessa Subarea “groundwater replacement” program which involves pumping Columbia River water into an extremely arid portion of the Columbia Plateau where the potato industry has over-pumped the groundwater system for decades (primarily to produce french fries), and is now seeking a water  bailout at public expense.  OCR claims success, but the Power Report points out that only about 3,000 acres have been switched to surface water, with massive infrastructure – and massive public subsidies – required for the remaining 80,000 acres.

(For background, see studies and reports criticizing the economics of the Odessa Subarea project.)

The Power Report also evaluates the Icicle Strategy – a proposal to pump water from lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to provide municipal water supply to the City of Leavenworth.  The Report notes the controversial nature of the project, given the extreme popularity of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and suggests that the problems of water supply be addressed through aggressive water conservation and development of regional water markets.  More information on the Icicle Strategy can be found in this blog’s 4-part series New Dams and Diversions in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Icicle Instream IllusionsAlpine Lakes Wilderness Society (ALPS) also opposes the Icicle Strategy.

The Power Report concludes in pointing out that the OCR has spent millions on studies of dams that were infeasible from the start.  These include the Lower Crab Creek and Hawk Creek dam proposals, which would have flooded substantial amounts of wildlife habitat, and the Shankers Bend dam, which would have flooded into Canada.  The bottom line?  The Office of the Columbia River has wasted substantial amounts of public funding pursuing projects that were doomed from the start.

The Power Report was commissioned by Sierra Club, which has long opposed dam building and dam operations in the Columbia Basin.  Legislative testimony by Sierra Club and ALPS details the concerns about OCR’s 2017 budget request.

 

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Alpine Lakes Wilderness Comment Deadline: May 11

colchuck-lake (USDA-FS)

Colchuck Lake, Alpine Lakes Wilderness (USDA)

After spending more than three years and a million taxpayer bucks, Chelan County and the Washington Department of Ecology have finally put out an environmental scoping request for the Icicle Work Group’s “Icicle Strategy.”   This document identifies our government’s plan to further dam and drain several lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area for future consumption by Wenatchee Valley developers and irrigators.

Complete details about the impact of the project can be found in the Alpine Lakes Protection Society’s (ALPS) latest newsletter.

People who care about the Alpine Lakes Wilderness –  one of America’s most beautiful and popular wilderness areas – need to speak up.  Comments regarding the scope of the environmental impact statement must be received by May 11, 2016:

  • Mike Kaputa, Director, Chelan Co. Natural Resources Dep’t
  • Via e-mail:  mike.kaputa@co.chelan.wa.us
  • Via snail mail:  411 Washington St., Suite 201, Wenatchee, WA

The SEPA checklist and various descriptions of the Icicle Work Group’s proposal are posted on Chelan County’s website.  Here are a few observations that may guide comments.

The Icicle Work Group is a self-appointed conglomeration of government agencies (federal, state, local, tribal), water resource users (irrigators and municipal water suppliers), and a couple of environmental groups interested in getting contracts to do projects.   The IWG has no members who are advocating to protect the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.*

The IWG’s “guiding principles” establish that whatever comes out of the process must be a “quid pro quo” deal.   Thus, any benefit to the environment will be accomplished only if new water rights are created to fuel development and sprawl in and around the City of Leavenworth, Cashmere, Dryden, etc.   These water rights will extract water from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness: Eightmile, Colchuck, Klonaqua, Nada, Snow, and Square Lakes.  To obtain this water, the cities will have to build dams and other infrastructure, and will inundate Wilderness lands as well as draw down the Wilderness lakes.  You can read the details in the Alpine Lakes Optimization & Automation Study (Table 6, p. 62 provides a handy summary.)

The Icicle Work Group asserts that this plan is environmentally beneficial because it will improve instream flows in Icicle Creek.  This assertion is (largely) false.   There will be minor improvements to streamflow, but most of the water promised to Icicle Creek is interruptible – that is – in water-short years the cities and irrigators will be able to take their full allotments of water regardless of how little is flowing in the creek.  There will not be enough water to protect the endangered steelhead and bull trout that inhabit Icicle Creek.

More analysis of these problems may be found in prior Naiads posts, such as Icicle Instream Illusions, and New Dams and Diversions in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Here’s what the IWG needs to hear:

  • The EIS must consider a Wilderness Protection Alternative.  This alternative would promote wilderness values as set forth in the Wilderness Act of 1964, would not allow new water infrastructure or diversions inside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and would require all new water supply to be obtained outside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
  • The EIS must consider a Water Conservation Alternative.  This alternative would assess using aggressive water conservation measures by Wenatchee Valley cities, including restrictions on lawn watering (as the citizens of Seattle have learned to do).  This alternative should also assess transfer of water rights from irrigation districts to cities, where orchards have already been torn out and replaced with residential subdivisions.  This alternative should also assess agricultural irrigation efficiency, such as replacing open gravity canals with pipes and pumps and other 21st century concepts.  A proposed Conservation Alternative is linked here.
  • The EIS must consider an Irrigation District Water Right Change Alternative, which would fix Icicle Creek’s low flow problem.  This alternative would evaluate moving the Icicle-Peshastin Irrigation District’s water right diversion, which presently takes 100 cubic feet per second out of Icicle Creek, to the Wenatchee River downstream about 3 miles.  This measure, which would permanently fix Icicle Creek’s low flow problem, would convert the IPID diversion from gravity flow to pumping (requiring electrical power). The Icicle Work Group should therefore analyze renewable energy options to supply that power, including solar, wind and in-canal hydroelectric.
  • The EIS must consider a Water Right Relinquishment Alternative.  Removal of water from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is on the table only because IPID holds water rights that were grandfathered when the Wilderness was created.  And – as IPID will tell anyone who will listen – every year they use what they need.  When the dam at Eightmile Lake fell down decades ago they didn’t fix it because they did not need more water.  When a party doesn’t use their rights, they lose them.  “Use It Or Lose It” – the basic rule of western water law – is controlling.   The EIS needs to analyze this.

The IWG’s plan to exploit the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a camel’s-nose-under-the-tent proposal.  As climate change alters the hydrology of the western U.S., we can expect to see many attempts to expand water projects that were grandfathered into wilderness areas. Wilderness advocates need to weigh in by May 11, for the sake of Alpine Lakes and for wilderness values in general.

__________________________

*The Alpine Lakes Wilderness Society (ALPS) was invited and declined to participate.  The Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP) participated in IWG meetings for two-plus years and then resigned when the operating procedures were changed to gag CELP’s objection to wilderness water projects.