the film
Commentaries and editorials

BPA Customers Subsidize Irrigators

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, January 15, 2000

Millions in aid was federal plan to help region's small farmers

Northwest residents pay millions to subsidize Columbia Basin irrigators, a newly released study of Grand Coulee Dam concludes.

The federal policy to keep irrigation costs low was intended to support thousands of 160-acre farms, the report from the World Commission on Dams notes. But while those small farms proved unrealistic, "subsidized prices for irrigation water persist."

The Bonneville Power Administration 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.

In addition, starting in 2009, the BPA must begin repaying the federal government for nearly $800 million of construction costs for the Columbia Basin Project, as the irrigation system is called.

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

Grand Coulee is one of eight dams worldwide studied by the World Commission on Dams. Researchers are considering whether the dams met their intended purposes and how they impacted life for those who live near them.

The commission was formed by dam builders, environmentalists, sociologists and others who attended a 1997 international dam 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 using guidelines established by commission members. Released Thursday, 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 postwar economic expansion. The Northwest still enjoys the cheapest power rates in the nation.

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.

But the dam ended salmon runs to the upper Columbia. Native Americans were forced 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 states.

Although it is the world's third-largest power producer, Grand Coulee was built primarily to create farms in the Columbia Basin desert. Water from Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind the dam, is spread over 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 shrubsteppe habitat. Sage-dependent species such as burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits, jackrabbits and sage grouse are disappearing.

The irrigation project, which was built after World War II, cost nearly three times what the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had estimated. And while irrigators were supposed to cover half the cost, they instead 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, a U.C. Berkeley engineer who worked on the report. "The farmers wouldn't be able to meet those costs without going under."

To prevent a rush of land speculators, 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.

Instead, the commission reported that the water went to just 2,290 farms that average about 500 acres. The limit for farms that receive water from the project has increased to about 900 acres because smaller farms proved impractical in the postwar economy.

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

They produce $637 million in crops annually.

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

"This project was an asset to the nation and the region," said Alice Parker of the Columbia Basin Development League. "The cost has been replaced many, many times over" in taxes paid by growers and jobs created in agriculture-related industries.

Parker farms near Royal City, Wash., a town that didn't exist until the irrigation project brought water to the land. The same is true of other communities scattered throughout the irrigated farmland.

Parker said she worries the new study will be used to justify changes in irrigation laws.

The World Conference on Dams has no regulatory authority and is not making recommendations for the operation of any existing dams, said Jamie Skinner, a Scottish biologist who works for the World Commission on Dams. Instead, commission members hope to write standards for future dams.

"We're trying to learn from the past," he said.

Dan Hansen
BPA Customers Subsidize Irrigators
Spokesman Review, January 15, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation