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Commentaries and editorials

Expansion Will Not Resolve Odessa Woes

by Norman Whittlesey and Walter Butcher
Capital Press, December 30, 2010

On Oct. 25, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington State Department of Ecology released the Odessa Subarea Special Study Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The Odessa Study has, for five years, been investigating alternatives for expanding and extending the Columbia Basin Project "for the purpose of replacing groundwater irrigation ... with surface water."

Irrigators in the Odessa Subarea are understandably excited about the prospect of a generous and renewable supply of water.

The Draft EIS reports on the feasibility and acceptability of alternatives for supplying Columbia River water for up to 102,600 acres currently irrigated with groundwater.

Unfortunately, estimated benefits of the current proposals do not exceed the costs. The Draft EIS' Economics Technical Report sums it up: "None of these alternatives would be considered economically justified."

As was the case for three previous studies, continued CBP development is not economically feasible, and does not qualify for federal funding.

The fundamental problem with proposed further development of the CBP is the very high costs. Construction costs for the Full Replacement Alternative are $3.3 billion, $32,000 for each of 102,600 acres to be supplied water.

In addition, annual costs for operations and maintenance and lost hydropower are higher than for already developed CBP areas.

Reclamation is trying to keep the study going by abandoning the terribly costly -- $63,000 for each acre -- part north of I-90 and concentrating on finding enough overlooked municipal and industrial benefits to push benefits above costs for the southern, partial replacement alternative.

But Reclamation has already described municipal and industrial benefits as "overstated." And further study will expose large errors in Reclamation's analysis and failures to follow Reclamation's own directives and standards for feasibility studies.

We estimate that correcting for errors and recalculating benefits as required by the federal principles and guidelines would reduce the benefit/cost ratio to about 0.1 for the least costly partial replacement alternative.

The second hurdle for Reclamation projects is financial feasibility.

Beneficiaries of the project must be willing and able to reimburse the federal government for all costs. Reclamation and Ecology are beginning to discuss the need for a public-private partnership repaying the federal government for the Odessa developments.

Farmers would be unable to pay much for surface water so a large share of the required reimbursement would have to come from the State of Washington.

Much of the public support for the project comes from a sense of urgent need to solve the problem of rapid aquifer drawdown in the Odessa Subarea.

However, Reclamation's ultimate goal is development of the eastern half of the CBP. Solving the aquifer problem is a side effect, something that is supposed to happen as the water supply is allocated first to replace groundwater.

There are two problems.

First, determination to pave the way for a 500,000-acre development has led to a proposal with costs far too high to be justified. The project is infeasible and none of it will be built, no East High Canal, no network of piped laterals, no relief for beleaguered Odessa irrigators, and no end to aquifer decline following any Reclamation alternative.

Second, commitment to CBP expansion for solving aquifer problems has diverted attention and funding from other cost-effective approaches to allocation of Columbia River water and management of Odessa Subarea aquifers.

There are other approaches that could deal with the groundwater problem for much less cost and also better fulfill the broad water management and development missions of Reclamation and Ecology. Non-structural measures such as enforcement of the Odessa Subarea Groundwater Management Policies, use of newly developed information about the aquifers to target areas where continued pumping is permissible, or a market solution that would cut unsustainable pumping by allowing the state to buy back unsustainable groundwater rights, would cost much less and might work just as well at solving aquifer problems.

It's time to quit trying to spread costly surface water widely throughout the Odessa Subarea, time to stop trying to ride Columbia Basin Project expansion to the goal of stable and rational management of the Odessa aquifers. That "horse" always stumbles, never quite gets there, and taxpayers are left with nothing but a bill.

Time to try a different way to deal with the aquifer problems.

Norman Whittlesey and Walter Butcher are retired professors of agricultural economics from Washington State University and each have more than 40 years of professional experience in the fields of irrigation development economics and water policy.

Norman Whittlesey and Walter Butcher
Expansion Will Not Resolve Odessa Woes
Capital Press, December 30, 2010

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