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Columbia Basin data past due for an update

This story was published Thursday, September 9th, 2004

Whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting.

An updated version of that Old West clich might substitute merlot for
whiskey, but water will long remain a source of conflict in the new

That means, of course, the second half of the Columbia Basin Project
won't happen without a fight. The political obstacles blocking the work
have kept people from even talking about it much in recent years.

But with wells running dry in the Odessa aquifer, the underground source
of water for about 200,000 acres in Adams, Grant, Lincoln and Franklin
counties, a water battle might be unavoidable.

It's a good time for proponents of irrigated farming -- which ought to
include everyone who likes to eat -- to start stockpiling some

When water first flowed into the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project in
1951, it looked like the battle was over. Land irrigated from Grand
Coulee would eventually reach 1.1 million acres. It was only a matter of
time and money.

But the numbers stalled at just 500,000 acres as plans for completing
the project were put on hold for a variety of reasons, primarily costs.

These days, the babies born in the Basin when the water was first turned
on are about ready to hand their farms over to their children.

If water is to be available for the next generation, the Basin's farmers
will have to be armed with the facts. Updated studies are needed to
provide the data.

The last serious look at restarting the Columbia Basin Irrigation
Project came in 1989, when the Bureau of Reclamation produced a draft
environmental impact statement.

The bureau estimated the cost of completing the project at $2.5 billion
or about $5,000 per acre, Paul Stoker of the Columbia Basin Development
League told the Herald.

A supplement to the study released in 1993 put the cost of adding 87,000
acres at $313 million, in 1988 dollars, or more than $483 million at
today's costs.

But both reports on costs are dated, as are the estimates of the
potential effects on the environment. If nothing else, irrigated farming
has undergone tremendous technological advances.

It means that adding 500,000 acres -- or 87,000 acres for that matter --
is a different proposition than it was a decade ago. Rational decisions
can't be made without updating past studies.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., managed to get $250,000 into the
House's energy and water bill for next year to study the Odessa aquifer
and explore solutions. It's much needed.

Better information on the costs and benefits of completing the second
half of the Basin is essential if the project is ever to move forward.

The winners in Washington's water wars will need hard facts to prevail.
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