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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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