U.S. Water News Online
ODESSA, Wash. -- In the past four years, Clark Kagele has
replaced two of the four wells on his 1,700-acre central Washington
farm after the wells went dry. The cost -- nearly $1 million.
Kagele was lucky. His new wells actually tapped clean water. A
neighbor down the road spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to
drill a deeper well only to draw air. Another tapped into a salty
liquid that had to be treated before it could be applied to his
So goes the story of farming atop the Odessa aquifer, a large,
groundwater source that feeds some 270,000 acres as a temporary
substitute for surface water irrigation. Farmers first drilled wells
in the 1960s, believing that the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project
would eventually be completed. Countless studies and four decades
later, the aquifer remains the primary source of water for crops, and
wells that were intended to last only a few years are going dry.
Now state and federal authorities are starting yet another study
of the feasibility of bringing water to the arid land. Two public
comment sessions were scheduled in Moses Lake -- none too soon for
farmers like Kagele.
"The problem is that the economic viability of these areas are
going to diminish quickly without water. There's already been
instances of farmers losing their livelihood," Kagele said, looking
out at the fields where he grows wheat, peas, canola and potatoes.
"We've been sitting here waiting. I don't know how much longer we can
The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project is fed by water impounded
behind Grand Coulee Dam, which was completed in 1942. Congress
originally authorized the project to irrigate about 1.1 million
acres, but only about 600,000 acres were developed before Congress
cut spending for large Western water projects.
Farmers in the undeveloped area received permission from the state
to drill wells as a temporary water source while they wait for
surface water. About two-thirds of the Odessa aquifer lies under that
area, and the impact of drawing water from it was noticed
By 1967, the state had imposed a moratorium on new wells. The
state then adopted new rules in 1974 intended to control the rate of
decline, but not stop it, said Ken Slattery, program manager for the
state Department of Ecology's water resources program.
The rules allow for declines of no more than 30 feet every three
years, and no more than 300 feet total -- a number that is quickly
approaching in some areas.
"The intent was to allow the decline to occur so you could
maximize the economic benefit to the area while waiting for the
project to be completed. The assumption was always that the project
would be completed and those people would have water forever,"
As part of the study, for which the state pitched in $600,000,
researchers will create a computer model of the groundwater system to
find out how many people would need to stop using their wells to
stabilize the aquifer.
The study also will review several proposals for easing farmers'
concerns. They include a plan to tap into one of the existing canals
on the project to get surface water to those closest to it. Another
proposal entails modifying the operation of Potholes reservoir, south
of Moses Lake, to store more water at different times of year.
Lawmakers in Olympia have tried to help. The Senate passed a bill
intended to ensure that Odessa-area farmers will not lose their water
rights under the state's use-it-or-lose-it law if they rotate to
dry-land crops or their well goes dry.
Lawmakers also approved a bill seeking to make more water
available in the future by increasing storage in new reservoirs. Gov.
Chris Gregoire signed the bill.
Kagele, though, and other farmers like him most want to see the
irrigation project completed.
A 1989 environmental review, the last major study of the project,
estimated the cost for completing the second half of the project at
more than $1 billion. The idea was quickly shelved as concerns about
endangered species -- particularly salmon and steelhead runs in the
Columbia River -- became more heated.
Whether completing the second half of the project is feasible
remains to be seen. Key to any proposal: engineering, impact to the
environment, and of course, money, said Bill Gray, deputy manager of
the Upper Columbia area for the Bureau of Reclamation.
"Any large project is built because everything just happens to
line up -- the need, the economics," Gray said. "If this became a
priority with the state, with the federal government, with the local
folks, it certainly could be built."
At the same time, Gray said he hopes stakeholders come to the
meetings with plenty of ideas beyond just completing the project.
"There's only so much money, and you have to prioritize," he said.
"I actually think a lot of people are going to come and say, 'Money
is really tight, and even if we wanted to build the second half of
the project, it's not going to happen, but how can we incorporate
existing infrastructure as best we can to deal with Odessa.'
"Maybe I'm an optimist."
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