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BPA Customers Pay for Farm Irrigation Costs

The Associated Press
Seattle Times, January 16, 2000

SPOKANE - Northwest residents pay millions of dollars in utility bills to subsidize irrigation for farmers in the Columbia Basin, a new study of Grand Coulee Dam found.

The report by the World Commission on Dams said the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) pays at least $58 million a year to subsidize irrigation, a cost that is passed on to customers. That includes the cost of pumping water from the Columbia River and a "conservative estimate" of the additional energy that could be produced if the water were left in the river.

But the water is producing twice the value in crops predicted by Depression-era planners. It "has fostered development of an economically viable farming community that contributes significantly to the state's economy," the report's authors wrote.

Columbia Basin farmers balk at the notion that their farms are subsidized.

"This project was an asset to the nation and the region. The cost has been replaced many, many times over" in taxes paid by growers and jobs created in agriculture-related industries, said Alice Parker of the Columbia Basin Development League. Parker farms near Royal City, a Grant County town that didn't exist until the irrigation project brought water to the land.

Eight dams studied

Grand Coulee was one of eight dams around the world studied by the commission. Researchers were considering whether the dams met their intended purposes and how they affected life for those who live near them.

The commission was formed by dam builders, environmentalists, sociologists and others who attended a 1997 conference in Switzerland. The various factions elected the 12 commission members, including two from the United States.

Researchers from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley wrote the Grand Coulee study. It was the first of the eight studies completed.

The researchers noted that Grand Coulee transformed the region by providing cheap electricity for the aerospace and aluminum industries that helped win World War II and fueled much of Washington's post-war economic expansion.

The Northwest still enjoys the cheapest power rates in the nation and the abundance of hydropower meant the region didn't have to turn to other forms of electricity, such as coal-burning generators that contribute to air pollution.

Dam changed lifestyles

But the dam ended salmon runs to the upper Columbia, forcing Native Americans to change their diets and their lifestyles.

"As a result of moving to foods high in fat, sugar and salt, rates of heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses have increased significantly on the reservations," the report said.

Although it is the world's third-largest power producer, Grand Coulee Dam was built primarily to create farms in the Columbia Basin desert. Water from Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind the dam, waters 530,000 acres - about half the land planners envisioned.

Irrigation created wetlands where waterfowl now flock, but the farms eliminated most of the state's shrub-steppe habitat. Sage-dependent species such as burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits, jack rabbits and sage grouse are disappearing.

The irrigation project, built after World War II, cost nearly three times what the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had estimated. Irrigators were supposed to cover half the cost, but have paid no more than 15 percent, the study concluded.

"When the bureau has increased costs, it can't pass on those costs to farmers," said Len Ortolano, an engineer who worked on the report. "The farmers wouldn't be able to meet those costs without going under."

Congress initially limited farms in the Columbia Basin Project to 160 acres. At that rate, planners said, the project would support 10,000 farms and 80,000 families.

But the commission found that water went to just 2,290 farms that average about 500 acres.

"The vast majority of these are still family farms," said Ortolano.

Associated Press
BPA Customers Pay for Farm Irrigation Costs
Seattle Times, January 16, 2000

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