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Commentaries and editorials

American Rivers Opposes
more Columbia Water for Irrigation

by Nicholas K. Geranios, The Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 8, 2005

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Taking more water from the Columbia River system to expand irrigated farming would actually hurt farmers in the state by producing a glut of produce, an environmental group contended Wednesday.

A proposal to devote an additional 1 million acre-feet of water to farming would cost farmers about $70 million a year for 20 years, according to a study for American Rivers conducted by scientists at Texas A&M University.

"This study shows that too much irrigation is bad not only for fish, but for farmers too," said Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director for American Rivers.

It was commissioned in response to renewed efforts by the state of Washington to expand the water supply for farmers in the arid Columbia River Basin, which runs from Grand Coulee Dam to the Tri-Cities.

The study assessed future markets for crops grown using additional Columbia system water. Additional water withdrawals would hurt salmon and steelhead who migrate down the Columbia and Snake rivers in the summer, which in turn would hurt communities that depend on those fish economically and culturally.

The new study was critical of two previous studies conducted by the state Department of Ecology under the administration of former Democratic Gov. Gary Locke. Those studies concluded that a major expansion of irrigated agriculture would benefit farmers and the state to the tune of $187 million a year.

Those studies assumed that crop prices would remain constant and that there would be sufficient demand for the additional produce, American Rivers said.

"Efforts should be focused on improving the profitability of existing farms through the development of new markets, improving water-use efficiency and limiting production," the new study said.

The Ecology Department had not had a chance to study the American Rivers report, and could not comment on the specifics, agency spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder said. But the agency will consider the findings as it determines how best to manage water from the Columbia system, she said. "The state needs to find the way to find enough water for fish and wildlife and communities," she said.

The amount of water in the Columbia system is already unsufficient to protect summer runs of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The new study comes amid new efforts to complete the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. Congress originally authorized the project, which is fed by water impounded behind Grand Coulee Dam, to irrigate about 1.1 million acres. Only about 600,000 acres were developed before funding for large Western water projects became anathema to Congress.

Finishing the project has been suggested as a way to help farmers struggling as water levels drop in the wells they use to irrigate crops.

American Rivers commissioned the new study by the university's Texas Agribusiness Market Research Center. It was conducted by scientists Gary Williams and Oral Capps.

Related Sites:
American Rivers
Columbia Basin Development League

Nicholas K. Geranios, The Associated Press
American Rivers Opposes more Columbia Water for Irrigation
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 8, 2005

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