Columbia Basin aquifers levels dropping

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writerJune 22, 2010 

Levels in the deep basalt aquifers that supply much of the Columbia Basin with drinking and irrigation water are declining at a rate that means some wells will go dry, legislators and Franklin County commissioners were told Monday.

Pinpointing when the water in the Wanapum and Grand Ronde basalt aquifers could run out is one goal of a hydrologic modeling project under way in Franklin, Adams, Grant and Lincoln counties by the Columbia Basin Ground Water Management Area.

Water is up to 10,000 years old in the Grande Ronde, and it is not being recharged because of its depth, Paul Stoker, executive director of the management area, said in a presentation to commissioners, state Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton.

"It's been a race to the bottom for 40 years," Stoker said of the declines.

Water in the Odessa Subregion must be pumped from 750 feet to up to 2,400 feet in some locations, according to the state. A U.S. Geological Survey report released this month of the larger 44,000-square mile Columbia Plateau Regional Aquifer system -- which includes Odessa -- found water levels declined an average 2 feet in the Grande Ronde from 1984 to 2009.

Static ground water levels in wells -- the elevation of water in a column -- that supply Moses Lake with its drinking water, for example, have dropped at an average rate of 18.7 feet per year in the past decade because of irrigation and municipal demands, according to a new draft study by the Columbia Basin GWMA.

Those declines are largely mirrored in other areas of the Columbia Basin, said Stoker, who has presented findings of the ground water declines to city councils in the Basin. His presentations aren't always warmly received.

"I've had some people tell me, 'You can't tell people this. It will hurt economic development,' " Stoker said. "Well, if you are going to run out of water in nine years, you can't fix this water supply problem in nine months."

The question nearly everyone asks him, Stoker said, is when. He said the GWMA hopes through the hydrologic modeling project to be able to provide some estimate in early 2011.

"Is Moses Lake going to run out of water? Yes, they will," Stoker said. "This scenario exists basically in nearly every city from Grand Coulee south."

A survey the Columbia Basin GWMA conducted with Odessa Subarea well users found that 31 percent already are raising short-season crops or counting on their wells for supplemental use only because of declines.

Another 31 percent expect to follow suit by 2015 and another 17 percent by 2020, according to the GWMA, which received $2.5 million in funding from the Legislature in 2009.

"These graphs are sobering -- 2020 is not that far away," Hewitt said after the meeting.

"I've said this before, but if oil is worth fighting for, what about water? We take water for granted, but what will we do if we don't have it?" Hewitt said.

A study by Washington State University has concluded that aquifer decline could cost the four counties up to 3,600 jobs and up to $630 million in regional sales, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

Fixing the water shortage likely will require federal and state involvement, officials said. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Ecology since 2006 have been studying the potential of replacing ground water in the Odessa that's now used for irrigation with surface water.

Among possibilities under consideration in an environmental impact statement for the subarea are expanding existing facilities or building new canals, tunnels, siphons or pumping plants. Additional water could be diverted from the Columbia River for the surface supply, according to Ecology.

Reclamation is studying several options, including modifying operations at Banks Lake and constructing a new 127,000-acre foot reservoir in Rocky Coulee, according to Ecology.

A draft of the environmental impact statement is expected to be released this summer, with the final version out in summer 2011.

* Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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