Have you had a 10,000 year-old glass of water? The water that’s pumped up from the Columbia Basin’s deepest irrigation wells (some as deep as 2,500 feet) has been there for at least that long.
Unfortunately, this prehistoric glass of water wouldn’t taste very good. Because of high pressure, water that deep is hot, about 125 degrees or as hot as a latte.
Plus, it’s full of corrosive minerals. According to radiocarbon testing by the Washington Department of Ecology, the Odessa aquifer water system is “dominated by waters 10,000 or more years old.”
This massive underground water supply was created during the most recent ice age, when large lakes covered eastern and central Washington and catastrophic floods carved out the scablands.
The aquifer hasn’t been refilled since.
There is no geologic connection to any surface water sources to replenish the aquifer, and groundwater pulled from the aquifer is not replaced by natural means.
This water has been used to irrigate crops since the 1950s, and now the aquifer is nearly depleted.
The Columbia Basin Project irrigates about 670,000 acres of land. If completed, the project would irrigate 1.1 million.
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.”
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.
Lead photo credit: Michele Kiesz shows her family's original 1956 well that has since run dry near Warden, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / Spokesman Review)