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Aquifer falling, central Washington farmers ask: Where will the water come from?

UPDATED: Sun., May 27, 2018, 3:25 p.m.

ODESSA, Wash. – Clark Kagele’s truck stops next to a tangle of shattered concrete and broken pipe. An old, defunct well.

For a few decades, 600 feet was deep enough. Not anymore.

On his 2,000 acres, Kagele grows wheat but also alfalfa for the herd, canola for cooking oil, timothy hay for discerning horse- and cattle-owners in Japan and South Korea, potatoes and, for the first time, sunflowers for packaged seed in the gardening store. A wide variety.

“Just diversify so we can use water different times of the year,” Kagele, 64, said from behind the wheel of his truck. “Because water is so scarce.”

It’s a refrain heard across the West and, increasingly, the world. Water is scarce. Drought is here, or coming.

For Kagele and his neighbors, the problem is with the Odessa Aquifer, the subterranean sea being mined to feed farm after farm and supply municipal water for about 20 towns in central Washington’s Columbia Basin. So much water has been taken from the aquifer that, in some areas, its water levels have dropped 10 feet per year. Now, the aquifer is close to gone, yet farmers still are farming and the aquifer still is being tapped.

A hundred feet or so down the road, Kagele has a replacement well, built in 2003, that goes much deeper, one of his five deep wells that penetrate as far as 2,500 feet below ground. They each draw about 1,000 gallons of water per minute, 24 hours a day, eight months a year – like other modern wells, Kagele said. And each well cost him about $1 million to drill and build.

As Kagele sits in his idling truck, ruminating on water and time and money, his new well pays off: On the east side of the road, a water wheel shoots its charge across a blooming constellation of yellow canola flowers. On the other side, to the west, the lack of ready water is all too clear: A fallow field sports only dirt clumps.

Kagele would like to abandon the wells and instead irrigate his farms with water drawn from the Columbia River, which is about 40 miles to the north. It’s not some crazy dream, but one that’s been around for 130 years. It’s also a reality for some of his neighbors. Drive a few minutes west and the farmers of Quincy don’t bother with wells. They feed their bountiful crops with the same water Kagele wants.

And he may soon get it. Work begun under former Gov. Chris Gregoire to irrigate this largely ignored part of the state is about to bear fruit and bring irrigated water to the farms surrounding Warden, south of Kagele’s Odessa land. Over the past four years, 47 miles of the canal have been widened to increase its capacity and, right now, 7 miles of pipe are piled up near a Hutterite farm in Warden, ready to be assembled and deliver water to 8,500 acres of farmland.

That’s just the beginning. Called the Odessa Ground Water Replacement Program, the undertaking has an urgency due to the shrinking aquifer. A mix of state and local funding will bring irrigation to another 87,000 acres. Kagele’s farm will be part of it.

Michele Kiesz shows her family's original 1954 well that has since run dry. Jake Wollman of the Warden Hutterian Brethren stands in the background. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Michele Kiesz shows her family's original 1954 well that has since run dry. Jake Wollman of the Warden Hutterian Brethren stands in the background. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

His shallow wells were first drilled, like most of his neighbors’ wells, more than 50 years ago, after government officials said water from the Columbia River was eminent. Water for irrigation. Water for living. Water to fulfill the promise of the Columbia Basin Project.

Before Kagele was born, around the time his great-grandfather homesteaded near Ritzville, a dream was hatched to remake central Washington, from a sparsely populated high desert to a green land filled with busy little farms called the Columbia Basin Project.

The dream was nearly realized. In the middle of the last century, the Columbia Basin Project became the “largest reclamation project in America,” and today there are 330 miles of main canals, 1,300 miles of secondary canals and 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways feeding 670,000 acres of irrigated land.

Beyond Kagele’s shattered well, out of sight about 14 miles west, the East Low Canal flows quietly through this land known to many as just the arid, unending horizon of Interstate 90.

It looks like a little river, with mallards sounding out from its calm surface, but it’s so much more. A product of human engineering, its path is not where nature would take it. Engineers didn’t want the water to reach the lowest point as quickly as it could, but instead to meander as slowly as it could, un-muddied and ready to sprinkle over fields. When the canal reaches a coulee, where nature would prefer a thundering waterfall, engineers shunt the canal underground in siphons, only to pump it up again on the other side, where it returns to its placid flow. As if the coulee didn’t even exist.

An idea takes hold

The effort to make the desert of central Washington bloom has been the work of many people. Right now, it’s the province of Craig Simpson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District. He’s leading the expansion of irrigated lands and his team widened the canal, but he pushed back against any thought that their work will finish what was started decades ago to convert the basin into a verdant expanse.

“This water is being delivered for one purpose: to save an aquifer,” he said. “This isn’t being done for development of the project. This is a groundwater and aquifer rescue program. That’s what this is. This is the most viable solution to help wean off some of the mining of the aquifer that’s happening.”

Simpson, a barrel-chested man with a graying goatee, marvels at the complexity of the irrigation project, and is proud to show off what his district’s workers have constructed in recent years. But it’s not the Columbia Basin Project.

“There are people that have been waiting for 60 years and we’re going to go right by them,” he said, noting that in one case canal water will be piped 10 miles for just a few hundred acres. “The reality is, if you were developing the Columbia Basin Project for agricultural purposes, you wouldn’t do it this way.”

A weir guides irrigation water through the East Low Canal of the Columbia Basin Irrigation District. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
A weir guides irrigation water through the East Low Canal of the Columbia Basin Irrigation District. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

What became the Columbia Basin Project started as the Big Bend project, which was first reported in the Coulee City News in 1892. The idea to build a huge dam and irrigate the great dry middle of Washington state was investigated in 1903 by T. A. Noble, an engineer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

“It is one of the largest projects in the United States,” Noble wrote in his report looking at the future site of the Grand Coulee Dam. “It is believed to be feasible.”

Years later, in 1918, newspaperman Rufus Woods was on the hunt for a story and Billy Clapp had good prey.

Clapp, an attorney in Ephrata, told Woods of the dam idea, filling out the scheme with the latest engineering, and telling Woods that the reservoir could be used not only for irrigation, but also electric generation.

Woods – the owner, publisher and editor of Wenatchee World – wrote up Clapp’s idea in July 1918, and slapped it with the headline: “FORMULATE BRAND NEW IDEA FOR IRRIGATION. GRANT, ADAMS, FRANKLIN COUNTIES. COVERING MILLION ACRES OR MORE.”

With Woods’ enthusiastic backing, the idea took off. Within months, Gov. Ernest Lister was sending letters to the nation’s capital asking for further studies of the Big Bend project and urging the Legislature to allocate $100,000 to study the proposal.

By 1923, the idea was before President Warren Harding, who recommended its ultimate completion.

A decade later, the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. Seeking to help float a sinking nation, Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the dam under the National Industrial Recovery Act.

At the time, the Grand Coulee was the biggest dam ever built. A mile long and 550 feet tall, it took 11 years to build and cost $163 million – about $2.4 billion in today’s dollars.

Clapp’s prediction proved prescient as the dam’s power-producing might would make possible the Northwest’s aluminum industry and plutonium production at Hanford. Both would help win World War II.

It was also the cornerstone of the Columbia Basin Project. Behind it sits Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, with 600 miles of shoreline. Some of the water of the Columbia River becomes Columbia Basin Project water with the work of 12 pumps, each with more than 65,000 horsepower powered by the dam’s generator turbines. Those powerful pumps move water 280 feet uphill to Banks Lake, the holding site for the irrigation water of the Columbia Basin Project.

The project as a whole was anticipated to take 75 years to complete, and with the construction of the dam, it was probably taken for granted that the plan would be seen to completion.

Jed Crowther, left, and Craig Simpson, with the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District pose for a photo in a giant concrete pipe. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Jed Crowther, left, and Craig Simpson, with the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District pose for a photo in a giant concrete pipe. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The first decades of the project saw brisk construction. Among the infrastructure built is the Banks Lake, the Main, West and East Low Canals, O’Sullivan Dam, Potholes Reservoir and Potholes Canal.

The project currently supplies about 3 million acre-feet of water a year to farms within its boundaries. An acre-foot is equal to a foot of water on an acre of land or more than 325,000 gallons. The basin project is authorized by Congress to draw 6 million acre-feet of water from the Columbia for irrigation annually.

As postwar America moved on from its wartime industrial footing and as the cost of the irrigation project kept climbing, the project lost support in Washington, D.C. In 1940, complete construction of the project was estimated at $487 million. By 1964, it had jumped to $970 million, dampening enthusiasm.

In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed, protecting the river’s salmon and essentially stopping work on the project, albeit with some construction continuing until 1985.

Temporary measures

The Columbia Basin Project irrigates about 670,000 acres of land. If completed, the project would irrigate 1.1 million acres.

In the 1960s, as the project seemed to be hurrying toward completion, the state Department of Ecology issued a flurry of groundwater rights to appease farmers while the East High Canal was built. It seemed like a matter of time. The East High Canal was proposed to be 88 miles long, diverting water from the Main Canal immediately above Summer Falls and Billy Clapp Lake and irrigating 357,000 acres.

The idea with the groundwater permits was to tap the aquifers below ground, essentially underground oceans, to feed the crops while pipes and canals were built to bring the everlasting flow of the Columbia to the crops.

It was intended to be temporary. The aquifer is a finite source of water, only charged by the Missoula Floods tens of thousands of years ago. In other words, it isn’t replenished.

The East High Canal was never built. An environmental impact statement on the canal was completed in 1993 and its construction is in “deferred” status. Building it now would cost $3 billion, according to state estimates.

“They issued those permits knowing in effect they’d be mining the groundwater,” said Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for the Columbia Basin Development League. “The problem being addressed now is action taken by the state in late 1960s and 1970s.”

It’s not like no one saw this coming, even if the exact limits of the aquifer were a mystery.

“The aquifer’s been in decline for 30-plus years,” said Melissa Downes, technical and policy lead for the state Department of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River. “In the meantime, they’re using an aquifer that we probably didn’t know enough about.”

A water pumping station will be built at the 47.5-mile point on the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District East Low Canal. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
A water pumping station will be built at the 47.5-mile point on the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District East Low Canal. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

At the turn of the 21st century, the situation became untenable. Wells were drying up, the aquifer was on the edge of extinction and construction on the Columbia Basin Project was unlikely to start again.

In 2001, The Spokesman-Review reported that the Odessa aquifer had dropped 200 to 300 feet in the previous three decades.

“It (water) is going to be worth its weight in gold here in another 10, 15 years. There’s a finite amount,” said Art Tackett, then-city administrator in Connell.

In 2005, Gregoire appropriated $600,000 to look into the issue, which led to the Columbia River Water Resource Management Program. It had a list of “near-term actions” that included developing irrigation to the Odessa area.

The promise of water

Judging by the way Michele Kiesz drives her Buick, the back roads of Grant and Lincoln counties don’t have many speed traps.

Pushing 70 mph, she turns off onto nothing, the weeds slapping her car’s undercarriage.

Out of the car on the crest of a weedy hill, Kiesz gloats about the condition of her “CRP,” the land she stopped farming as part of the Conservation Reserve Program administered by the federal Farm Services Agency that pays farmers “to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.”

There’s another reason this land is fallow, the reason her Buick trudged up the hillside. Next to a moribund wheel sprinkler is Kiesz’s first dead well. Her grandfather drilled it in July 1954, and Kiesz believes it’s the first well ever dug to tap the Odessa aquifer.

The well doesn’t produce anymore, but if it did, it’d bring up 10,000-year-old water like all the other Odessa-area wells. “Nasty water,” is how Kiesz and other farmers describe it. Due to the intense pressure so far underground, the water down there is 125 degrees – a temperature similar to a Starbucks latte. And it’s chock full of calcium, corrosive enough to eat at the underground well-works and require regular maintenance.

Kiesz, who farms 4,000 acres, doesn’t mince her words about the water replacement program and basin project. The federal government promised irrigated water, she said. Time to deliver.

“Fulfill the promise,” she said. “It’s a promise that’s 65-plus years old.”

Not far from her well, just a few miles west, is the Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District. Unlike the well-diggers of the east like Kiesz, Quincy-area farmers have been using irrigated water for decades, and their pocketbooks reflect it.

She likens the Quincy and East irrigation districts to twins. One was “raised well and with a good education. The other is in dirty diapers,” she said. “We’re in the dirty diapers.”

For Kiesz, the situation is black and white. Farmers come first. Fulfill the promise. Forget the salmon and hand-wringing over the cost. Though she acknowledged the $20 million that went toward construction of the Weber Siphon Complex under President Barack Obama in 2009 as part of an economic stimulus package, Kiesz said President Donald Trump understands the situation better than any president has before.

“He understands farmers,” she said. “We know this is it. This is our last opportunity to do this.”

Seeking federal dollars

Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, Kiesz may be right about the timing.

In the past five years, funding has come in at a clip: $2 million for incremental widening of the East Low Canal. The Legislature appropriated $26 million through Ecology’s Office of Columbia River for the project. In 2016, the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District borrowed $1.8 million for East Low Canal improvements. An additional $10 million from the Legislature went to two siphons, called Kansas Prairie One and Two.

One missing funding source: the federal government.

That may change. Just this month, the federal Bureau of Reclamation recalculated its cost-benefit ratio that determines a project’s feasibility and will determine whether federal funds will come. If the feds invest a dollar, the ratio must reflect that a dollar will come out of the investment.

“If you’re going to give a dollar, you have to get a dollar back,” Kagele said. “The federal government will take a hard look at it now. Can you finish the project? Will you finish the project? The federal government can take a look at it.”

It already has, to a degree.

This month, the reclamation bureau put nearly $2 million more toward irrigation projects, which included $750,000 for oversight and design for a pumping plant and pipeline for the Odessa Ground Water Replacement Program.

“With declining aquifers in the Odessa Subarea, this project is critical to providing infrastructure needed to bring water from other areas,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in a statement. “Agriculture is Washington’s number one industry, and this project will ensure Columbia Basin irrigation districts can provide the water needed to grow our crops and fuel our economy.”

Not everyone is pleased.

Norm Whittlesey and Walt Butcher, emeritus professors of agricultural economics at Washington State University, have looked at the cost-benefit equation for decades and have written much about the reclamation bureau stretching the truth to get the desired result.

Butcher said the bureau was simply looking for more funding to build “traditional big water storage and delivery projects” such as dams and canals, while ignoring newer technologies and methods.

“There are more effective and economical alternatives available for irrigators, with help from the state, to increase irrigated agriculture and expand the economy of central Washington,” he said.

‘We’re not going to save the aquifer’

Rachael Paschal Osborn, a retired public interest water lawyer and environmentalist, has been a watchdog of the basin project for nearly 20 years.

Osborn believes a federal report weighing the environmental consequences of the water replacement program was flawed, and sued. She lost.

Her argument surrounded the science determining how much water can be drawn from the Columbia River without affecting the salmon runs. She said the equations are simplistic and don’t reflect the seasonality of the river.

“There’s an enormous amount of water that’s already being taken out of the river during the irrigation season,” she said. “The largest amount comes out at the Grand Coulee Dam but there’s a lot of other diversions along the river.”

Instead of looking at the annual flow of the river, Osborn said regulators should consider how much is needed during different times of the year. In the spring, for instance, juvenile salmon are present and require a certain set of conditions. There are also “late season issues when the river is flowing lower. That’s when they take more water out, as fish are going up and down the river.”

Osborn ruefully described the current push to use more river water as a good time for the bureau to capitalize off a human-caused crisis.

“First of all, we’re not going to save the aquifer. It’s depleted,” she said. “The aquifer is gone so discussion about saving it is nonsense.”

She pointed to the reclamation bureau’s authorization to use 6 million acre-feet of Columbia water, of which it can only tap half.

“They really want the other half, but the reason they can’t is because the Columbia Basin Project isn’t fully built,” she said. “The Bureau of Reclamation would really like to use the water rights they have. And then you have this created crisis in the Odessa aquifer.”

Osborn referred to the economic analysis of Whittlesey and Butcher, the WSU professors.

“The project has never made economic sense,” she said. “These are subsidies to the irrigators. Just huge subsidies all around.”

Replacing the Odessa

Mile 47.5 of the East Low Canal is a big deal.

The Odessa water replacement program begins here. It’s where the first pump station is being built. Seven miles of pipe is piled up, ready to be fitted together and deliver water to 8,500 acres of farmland.

Right now, it looks like a giant-sized street curb gutter with six big holes perforating its top, waiting for the machinery to be installed.

From this side of the canal, the future pump station sits foreground to the Warden Hutterian Brethren land. Of the 8,500 acres that will be fed by this pump station, about 5,300 belong to the Hutterites.

There’s just one problem. The Hutterites, and the head of the Warden community, Jake Wollman, won’t give up the land where the pipes are supposed to run on. The Hutterites farm 15,000 acres, he said, supporting 34 families.

“We’re waiting for the easement,” said Simpson, the irrigation district’s manager. “We were under the impression the landowners would donate the easements.”

While state officials and many locals are in general agreement that replacing the wells with surface water is good, areas of contention remain.

A recent appraisal report for the irrigation district said that no compensation for the easements was needed, since the irrigated water would benefit those whose land the pipes run along. As Simpson said, if the irrigation district has to pay for the land, they’ll take out debt with interest. Landowners, who are represented by the district, are responsible to pay it back – with interest.

Then there are the rogue well users. Last December, three landowners were fined for illegally pumping more than 500 million gallons of groundwater from the Odessa aquifer.

Kiesz, whose grandfather drilled the area’s first well, was fined $309,000 for illegally irrigating 335 acres of alfalfa and potatoes. Michael Schmidt was fined $103,000 for illegally irrigating 65 acres of alfalfa. And Ron Fode was fined $206,000 for illegally irrigating 130 acres for timothy hay.

Kiesz said she’s appealed the ruling and has yet to pay a dime.

Fode was involved with all three operations that were fined. Where he wasn’t the landowner, he leased the land and worked it. Reached by phone, he declined to comment due to ongoing “litigation” with Ecology.

According to Ecology, the illegal irrigation took place where the Odessa water table falls an average of 5 feet per year. The wells that were tapped for the illegal irrigation were designated as “emergency backup” and weren’t allowed to be used for irrigation.

Waiting, and hoping

In his Ray-Ban sunglasses, with his truck’s radio tuned to an alternative rock station, Kagele might seem more like a close-to-retired suburbanite who shuttles the grandkids to soccer practice than a farmer. But sure enough, he is – like his father before him, and his father before him and his father before him. Like his son, too, who is learning the ins and outs of operations in preparation to take over the farm in coming years.

Five generations of farmers working the high, dry dirt of the Columbia basin since the 1890s. So many Kageles, in fact, that locals still refer to the area as “Kageleville.”

His connection to the Odessa area runs deep. He said he “was born in the Odessa hospital, and I’ll probably die there.”

From his truck, he points to the house his forebears built, where he lived for a time and where his son and his son’s family live now. And there’s his daughter working on the irrigation system for a small vegetable garden and old, tall trees at another house owned by his family.

“We love trees,” Kagele said, without irony in a landscape largely devoid of trees.

Timing and money are perhaps two of the most important things to a farmer, and when Kagele’s dad drilled the family’s first well in 1963, he spent substantial resources in hopes that time would bring Columbia River water.

Just a year or so from retirement, Kagele is still waiting and hoping. He’s been waiting since 1976, when he took over the farm. He’s been waiting since his first well went dry in the 1980s, when he saw its motor spinning and nothing coming out. He’s been waiting since 2005, when he was in Olympia and watched Gregoire put money toward finding ways to get water to the Odessa area and save the aquifer.

He’s still waiting, and still hopeful.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,” he said. “I hope the work I do now benefits my grandchildren.”


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