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


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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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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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Whatcom Water Insanity Part 1: Lynden Water Stealing & Milk as “Foreign Water”

WRIA 1 Map (Dept of Ecology)

Nooksack Watershed Map (Dept of Ecology)

This is a story, the first of many, about water resource issues in Whatcom County.  Whatcom County is well known as a place where a lot of people and farms and companies steal water.  One of the water thieves is the City of Lynden.

 

Bald Eagles

Bald eagles fishing for salmon in the Nooksack River (Photo Seattle Times)

By water thieves, we mean farms, dairies, cities and anyone else who takes water out of the Nooksack River (including tributaries and connected groundwater), without a water right.   This is wrong – it is stealing.  It hurts the river and its salmon and steelhead and the shellfish beds in the bay.  However, for decades, rather than bring enforcement action to halt water stealing in Whatcom County, the state agency in charge – the Department of Ecology – has hesitated, stumbled, apologized and pretty much done everything it can to avoid dealing with the problem.

With respect to Lynden, the city’s latest plan to stop stealing water is not to actually stop stealing, or to adopt aggressive water conservation, or to purchase and transfer existing rights, or any other water budget neutral solution.  No, instead Lynden wants credit for the wastewater that the Darigold powdered milk plant is already putting into the Nooksack River a mile downstream of the City’s water treatment plant.

The problem with this scheme, however, is that it too is illegal.

  • Darigold doesn’t own its wastewater, and can’t transfer it to the City.
  • The wastewater is already in the river so the “offset” is illusory.
  • Even if it weren’t illusory, there’s still a mile of river (and salmon habitat) that would be de-watered.
  • The wastewater from the Darigold plant is not “foreign water” (see below for more on the amazing concept that milk is foreign water).

Given all this illegality, Lynden is now asking the WA Legislature to make it all good.  And amazingly, the Legislature is complying.  Senate Bill 5298 sailed through the Senate, and was heard in the House Ag & Natural Resources Committee on March 24, 2015 – and could pass out of the committee and on to a floor vote sometime soon.

So, just to review.  A city that has been stealing water and harming flows in the Nooksack River has asked the Legislature to change the law to allow it to get credit for wastewater that is already being put into the River.  And the Legislature is prepared to do it.

So, why is water stealing such a big deal?

Nooksack River IRPP flows v fish flows

Redline – WA state’s take on flows to protect Nooksack River instream values Greenline – Flows actually need to protect instream values.

First, there’s the river.   In 1985, the Department of Ecology adopted an instream flow rule for the Nooksack River.   However, these instream flows were a compromise and not adequate to protect fisheries.  The graph at right shows what flows are needed (green line) versus what flows are protected under the law (red line).

Nooksack River percent days flows unmet (ECY 2015)

Fascinating graph showing how often the rule-based instream flows are not met throughout the year.

And that red line is not reality. The flows that are supposed to be protected in the instream flow rule are in fact often not achieved.  So water stealing by Lynden (and others) really does hurt the river and its fish.

Second, the Legislature is rewarding a scofflaw.  And this is really bad policy, because there are quite a lot of water thieves in Washington – in Whatcom County and elsewhere.  If the Leg gives in on this one, where does it end?

Third, is the “foreign water” concept – the idea that the mitigation water from the Darigold plant is adding new water to the Nooksack River.  In western water law “foreign water” means water that is imported from another watershed.

But here, the Department of Ecology has determined that Darigold wastewater is foreign because it comes from the cows.  In other words, the cows drink Nooksack River water, and they produce milk.  But once the milk comes out of the cow, it’s foreign water.

Once you’ve had a good laugh about that, feel free to call your legislator and ask that they stop rewarding water thieves, including the City of Lynden, and oppose SSB 5298.

More laughs and lots of good information about water and land use in Whatcom County can be found at Get Whatcom Planning.

 

 

 


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Bambi in the Crosshairs

Deer in Park

Hunting in Washington state parks? You’re kidding, right?

The Washington Legislature will hold a hearing on Monday, January 26 on House Bill 1346, which would open Washington State Parks up to hunting.

This is a bad idea.  Washington state parks are havens for people and wildlife, providing important habitat and opportunities for passive wildlife enjoyment and nature recreation.

Beyond the recreational impact, Washington state parks are THE POSTER CHILD for agency budget cuts.  How the Parks & Rec Commission would be able to implement, regulate and protect public safety is a complete unknown.  HB 1356 has no fiscal note – apparently the proponents don’t understand the status of the agency’s cannibalized budget.

Readers are encouraged to comment to the House Committee on the Environment and their own state representatives.   The HB 1346 website has a link for easy submittal of comment.