Columbia Basin Water Development

by: Posted on: December 30, 2011

By Vicky Scharlau, Executive Director, Columbia Basin Development League

Editor’s Note: How America has chosen to control its water impacts our lives and agriculture today. Here, Vicky Scharlau gives her perspective on the role the Bureau of Reclamation has had in bringing water from the Columbia River to the dirt of arid eastern Washington. Started in the 1940’s,the Project was anticipated to take 75 years, but in the 1990’s a moratorium on withdrawing water from the Columbia River was enacted because of the effects on endangered species. In this piece Scharlau advocates for extending the Project to the Odessa Subarea Aquifer and explains how the inability to do so will jeopardize the Odessa Aquifer. Read below for the details.

Since its inception in 1964, the Columbia Basin Development League has supported the Bureau of Reclamation Columbia Basin Project. The Bureau of Reclamation is one of the major Federal water development agencies.  Historically the Bureau of Reclamation developed water projects to build infrastructure to bring water to dry, arid Western lands for irrigated farming. The Bureau’s responsibilities include multiple-use water development for municipal and industrial purposes like golf courses and food processing, generation of hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation (lakes, reservoirs, wetlands).

The Columbia Basin Project is located in east central Washington and currently delivers water to about 671,000 acres of agricultural lands. This is about 65% of the 1,029,000 acres originally authorized by Congress for the Project to receive water.  The land authorized to receive Project water covers portions of Grant, Adams, Lincoln, Franklin and Walla Walla counties. Repayment to the Bureau (for building the infrastructure) comes through contracts with three separate irrigation districts.  These irrigation districts deliver water as well as maintain and operate the infrastructure and invoice farmers for the water they use.

Reclamation projects are created and authorized by an act of Congress that sets out parameters for each project. The Bureau of Reclamation then does a feasibility study, which in the case of this Project was delivered to Congress in 1945 and became House Report No. 172.  The Project was determined to be feasible and Congress funded the initiation of construction.

That original feasibility report anticipated a 75-year period of incremental development to complete the Project for irrigation, hydropower, flood control and municipal and industrial water supplies. Existing infrastructure to move water was developed from the 1940’s through the early 1980’s.

All principal features of the Project have been constructed except for the East High Canal system and the extension of the East Low Canal south of I-90.  These projects were interrupted in the 1990’s by a moratorium on additional Columbia River withdrawals largely for concerns of endangered species.

The initial plan included building Grand Coulee Dam and the infrastructure necessary to disperse water throughout the 1,029,000 acres. The Columbia River water behind Grand Coulee Dam is Lake Roosevelt. Water is pumped from Lake Roosevelt into Banks Lake which was built to store water and moderate demand fluctuations throughout the agricultural irrigation season.


The initial focus of the Columbia Basin Development League was to promote development of the entire Project.  This remains the League’s focus; specifically to prevent economic and environmental disaster by replacing wells (drilled into the Odessa Aquifer) with Project water.  No additional infrastructure is necessary to serve the Odessa—just more distribution capacity to get water to the farms now pumping from wells.


In the mid-1970’s, farmers in the eastern most portion of the Project, that had not yet received irrigation water, went to the Washington Department of Ecology to request permits to dig wells for irrigation in the Odessa Subarea.  Both Ecology and these farmers anticipated that irrigation water from the Project would eventually reach the area.  The wells were approved with the anticipation that once Project water was available, withdrawals from the Aquifer would not be needed.

Infrastructure to serve these lands with Project water is not developed and pumping from the wells continues. The Aquifer is declining to the extent that domestic, municipal and industrial users are at risk, not to mention irrigation for farmers. Municipal and industrial uses are currently restricted from time to time, and cities in the region including Moses Lake, Connell and Othello, are experiencing quality problems from groundwater due to elevated temperatures, sulfur and other minerals.

When the Bureau of Reclamation lifted the 2003 moratorium that prohibited additional Columbia River withdrawals, the League began discussions on how to continue development of the Project to take pressure off the Odessa Aquifer. Bringing Project water to the Odessa Subarea requires following a strict series of complex rules and guidelines for development in a Federal Reclamation Project.

The League continues to play a strong role in facilitating discussion and action among stakeholders including Federal and State agencies as well as farmers, businesses, civic and economic groups, and individuals interested in the Project.  The League submitted comments during the public input stage of a 2010-2011 draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Odessa Subarea Special Study. The Special Study is evaluating alternatives that would deliver Columbia Basin Project water to the Odessa Groundwater Management Area to replace the declining deep wells. A “no action” alternative, as required by the EIS, is also an option. The League’s point was that the State of Washington relied on expected Project development in making the decision to allow the deep wells that effectively “mined” the Odessa Aquifer.

The next step in the Special Study (Environmental Impact Statement) is for the Bureau of Reclamation and their study partner, the Washington Department of Ecology, to analyze comments and develop responses to substantive issues that were raised. The process is expected to take most of 2011 and following completion, a final Environmental Impact Statement and Planning Report and Record of Decision will be issued. The final EIS is expected to be released this winter.

As a means of perspective, consider the economic value of crops provided by the Project. The farm gate value of all crops grown in the Project is $1.44 billion.  These crops are then processed and the value increases.  These numbers are annual:

• In the three county area:

$3.68 billion in output (value of goods and services produced), $1.59 billion in income (farmers, employees and property), and 28,500 jobs

• Elsewhere in Washington:

$484 million in output, $194 million in income, and 2,400 jobs

• Across US (Outside of Washington State):

$1.7 billion in output, $662 million in input, and 8,000 jobs

• Sales tax:

Contribution to Washington State is $38 million


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Vicky Scharlau, Executive Director, Columbia Basin Development League

Phone: 509.782.9442



One Response to “Columbia Basin Water Development”

  • If you ask, you'll find the fatal flaws in the Soquel Diversion had nothing to do with NOT ENOUGH WATER in the hrteaswed.Dr. Andy Fisher told the Directors in May 2008 that he envisioned a series of injection wells in the hills to harvest rain water which is where the County map of PRIMARY AQUIFER REGENERATION GEOGRAPHY is located.Soquel Ck Diversion was to harvest rainwater, they just dropped the entire idea & did the quantum leap to desal instead of devising a new way to harvest rain.If rain were harvested above the Creeks there would be less erosion to impact Salmon spawning
    by: Madmaxon: Monday 12th of March 2012

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