Forecast shows water demand to grow

A new report from the Washington Department of Ecology should better consider job creation and other positive economic impacts that would come from increasing water use in the Columbia River basin, farmers and representatives of irrigation groups said at a Wednesday workshop in Richland.

The department is conducting three workshops this week to discuss the state's first comprehensive look at future water supply and demand in Eastern Washington.

Efforts to find new supplies for the arid, drought-prone region have been in the works for decades, in hopes of meeting increasing demand from farmers, industries and growing cities, and to improve stream conditions for threatened and endangered fish.

According to the report, municipal demand is expected to increase by 24 percent by the year 2030, while demand from agricultural irrigators is expected to increase 10 percent.

Conversely, supply is expected to increase just 3 percent. Researchers attributed the increased demand to influences of climate change, population growth and economic trends.

Charlie Lyall, who grows juice grapes for Welch's in Mattawa, Grandview, Sunnyside and Prosser, said the report's assumptions about the economic impacts of agricultural water use are "way out of whack."

As an example, researchers highlighted the effect of irrigating an additional 11,000 acres of crops in south-central Washington's Benton County. The additional water would create 165 jobs and increase gross sales by $20.5 million.

Those job figures might be accurate for a crop that doesn't require many workers, Lyall said.

"The agricultural economy is really wide open. It really depends on what you're farming," he said. "If you're growing labor intensive crops, many, many more jobs are created."

Darryll Olsen of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association agreed.

"I believe we are underestimating the number of jobs from new water supplies, thus undervaluing the value of the water," he said.

Some people also suggested that the 20-year assumptions about climate change in the report should be extended far longer.

The report forecasts for warmer, wetter winters, when water demand is low, and hotter, drier summers, when demand peaks. For example, flows on the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam are expected to increase by up to 35 percent from November to May, but decrease by up to 9 percent from June to October.

The report is required by the Legislature under a 2006 bill that appropriated $200 million to improve water conservation, storage and water-use agreements in the basin.

Specifically, the bill tasks state officials with finding alternative water supplies for farmers east of Moses Lake who irrigate crops with groundwater from the declining Odessa aquifer. The region includes a major Northwest potato production area for the world's french fry market.

They also must find water supplies for water users on the Columbia River who have junior water rights, which can be interrupted during periods of drought, to try to meet hundreds of pending water rights requests that have been sitting unresolved for 20 years, and to improve in-stream flows for fish.

About $100 million of that money has been appropriated for projects so far.

Dan Haller of the Ecology Department's Office of Columbia River said the feedback from water users is crucial to forecasting supply and demand. A final report is due to the Legislature in November. The next forecast won't be due until 2016.

About 50 people, mainly farmers, representatives of irrigation groups and government workers, attended Wednesday's meeting.

Lyall found the turnout depressing.

"This is a huge issue that affects a lot of people, but the people here the only ones who recognize it," he said with a laugh. "More people need to understand the importance of water in this region."

The state Ecology and Fish and Wildlife departments and Washington State University researchers will take comments and feedback on the draft report at workshops in Wenatchee on Thursday and in Spokane on Friday.