Thursday, August 24, 2006

Central WA Crisis: Underground Aquifer Going Dry

Frightening! More reasons to conserve water. The Aquifer in the midwest is also running dry.

Posted: Tuesday, August 22, 2006

ODESSA, WA - Drive through parts of Central Washington State and you'll
see plenty of farm fields. What you won't see are irrigation canals.
That's because the water comes from deep underground. But there's a
problem. The aquifer is running out of water ... and wells are drying
up. (The same thing is happening in parts of Idaho). Correspondent
Austin Jenkins reports on this Northwest water crisis and a
controversial plan to fix the problem.

It's a twice-a-day chore for farmer Clark Kagele. He climbs on the back
of a dirt bike - or on this day in his pick-up - and makes a 12-mile
loop through his farm near Odessa, Washington. Along the way he checks a
system of pumps that draw water from deep below the earth's surface to
water his crops.

Kagele: Well we've got about 1400 acres here that are being irrigated
under three deep wells and they're all pumping out of the Odessa

The Odessa Aquifer is an underground water source. Think of it not as a
lake, but ponds trapped within layers of basalt rock. Over the decades,
some of the shallower ponds have been sucked nearly dry. Now farmers are
drilling wells that are more than two-thousand feet deep - where the
water is much different. Kagele stops at a pumping station to show me.

Kagele: This water - I'll turn the spigot on for you - it's probably
running at about a hundred four degrees. If you can get a little handful
there and put it up to your nose - what do you smell?

Reporter: Sulfur.

Kagele: Lots of sulfur. It smells like rotten eggs so we know that's
ancient water.

This water may be old and hot and smelly but it still grows crops. The
Odessa Aquifer is the lifeblood for a vast swath - some 160-thousand
acres - of Washington's farm economy. The problem is the aquifer is
being depleted and farmer's wells are drying up.

Kagele: This little guy right here is the one that went dry overnight.
Was pumping great one day and came out next day and was spinning

In recent years Kagele has had to drill two new wells - hundreds of feet
deeper than the ones they replaced - at a cost of nearly a million
dollars. Kagele's third well is dropping a foot of water a year. There's
broad agreement this is a crisis and the economic stakes are high.

Smith: Not only are we going to lose agricultural operations and family
farms but we're going to lose food processors and a large number of
family wage jobs.

Craig Smith is a Vice President at the Northwest Food Processors
Association. His members process potatoes and vegetables from the Odessa
Aquifer area.

Smith: The bottom line here is that this area is a huge production area
not only for potatoes but sweet corn and many other crops that are
essential to the economy of the State of Washington.

A study paid for by the Washington State Potato Commission estimates up
to 36-hundred jobs could be lost if the Odessa runs dry.

So what's the solution? The federal government is dusting off a plan
from the 1940s. It calls for continuing construction of the Columbia
Basin Project. The CBP - as it's known - brought Columbia River water to
sagebrush country through a series of canals. Now the idea is to extend
the system to the Odessa Aquifer area - something that was always part
of the plan. This would allow farmers to switch from well water to river
water. Ellen Berggren with the federal Bureau of Reclamation is heading
a five-year feasibility study.

Berggren: The Columbia Basin Project was authorized by Congress to
irrigate one-million-twenty-nine-thousand acres and it's currently
irrigating about six-hundred-and-seventy-one-thousand acres.

The question is whether it makes economic and environmental sense to
bring river water to another one-hundred-thousand plus acres of

Berggren: One of the very important considerations in our study is
looking at ways of getting water - which would ultimately have to come
from the Columbia River - in a manner that will not affect Columbia
River flow targets for fish.

That's a key concern for Rob Masonis with the environmental group
American Rivers. After all the Columbia Basin Project was crafted more
than sixty years ago. Long before water had to be set aside for
endangered salmon.

Masonis: It may be that you could move water around within the Columbia
Basin project to serve those farms in question without further depleting
the Columbia River. Where it will get more difficult from the
perspective of the environmental community is where we're talking about
further degrading resources that are already seriously degraded.

Masonis says it's too early to know if this has the potential of turning
into a protracted legal battle.

[Wind noise]

In the meantime, scientists continue to monitor the aquifer. Guy Gregory
is a geologist with the state Department of Ecology. We're at a test
well near the town of Odessa. He unreels an electronic tape down the
well. It measures water depth. The tape is 500 feet long. It keeps going
and going and going.

Gregory: We're thinking about getting a thousand foot tape but we don't
have anyone who wants to try and reel it up. It gets kind of heavy

Finally, at 480 feet the tape hits water and an alarm sounds. Since 1971
the water in this well has dropped two hundred feet. Past efforts to
bring Columbia River water to this part of Washington have stalled. But
now with so many wells failing farmers say something has to be done.

Copyright 2006 KPLU


t. said...

I have this fantasy that sometime in the future, people will look at our water parks, swimming pools, Las Vegas, etc. and wonder what the heck we were thinking.

Emme said...

Scary thing is that it may be sooner than later.

Right now I wonder what in the world we were thinking! We certainly have not lived in a very sustainable era!

t. said...

That is so true. I've been to Vegas once and was stunned at how unsustainable that whole city is.

Chelee said...

I live in south central WA. What this doesn't tell you is that it is a desert. No kidding(people don't believe the center of this state is a desert), it has always been a desert. These people are trying to farm areas that are not "naturally" farm land. It's no surprise to me that their wells and aquifers show a depleation every year. While I'm sure there are family farms, they don't say that these family farms are mostly mono-culture farming i.e. corn, potato, wheat, etc.

I live right next to the Columbia River. There are many debates going on now regarding water rights. Everyone wants a piece of it. Pretty soon, I worry it will only be a trickle.

Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

Are you having an insane number of hits from the magazine article? I'm suddenly getting a lot of visitors from your site.

Emme said...

It seems to go in spurts. Now that it is available via the web, there are more visitors. There were a lot of visitors when the article first reached the subscribers, then when it reached the newstands, and now when it is online!

Anonymous said...

I'm an environmental scientist and water quality/quantity professional. I don't see enough of the farmers in the Odessa sub-area using sustainable soils management techniques. For decades, they have used the subsurface water supply as though it were endless, naturally replenished. Not so. These aquifers orignate further, to the East. Overuse has hurt natural water supply to the West, that feeds Upper Crab Creek, and a number of natural seep lakes in the area. Worse, poorly regulated development in the Columbia Basin Project (a sticky political situation no one wants to touch) has caused the Quincy Sands Aquitard to be badly depleted as well. This feeds southwards and will eventually impact spawning beds, where these waters emerge below Priest Rapids Dam. Inevitably, the PUD will be illogically tagged as "culprit", when in fact, its mass action over withdrawal from numerous private wells in the upsteam subsurface. Thus, on one is left untouched by flagrant groundwater overuse. Not mentioned, but also problematic: the salination of soils watered within the Odessa Subarea. Thats what happens when you pump dissolved ion rich waters, and overapply to soils for decades.

Reap what you sow, when you fail to consider the larger impact of personal action. One thing is certain: blame will be laid at the feet of Federal and State agencies, instead of where it belongs.

Emme said...

Wow! Thank you for the wealth of info. It really does make you think about our human impact. We all do need to learn sustainability practices, how to use grey water, how to consider the earth in our actions...

Water is certainly not plentiful.

Thank you for posting!