ELLENSBURG -- Twenty-five communities in Eastern Washington's arid Columbia River basin could have their municipal wells go dry as soon as a decade, according to a study of the underground aquifer that supplies their ground water.
State officials say the problem is not an immediate crisis but a looming one, and they are working to better educate those communities about the issue. The combined population in the affected areas stretching from Odessa to Pasco is 200,000 people.
"Many of these communities are now learning about the problem," said Derek Sandison, director of the Washington Department of Ecology's Office of Columbia River. "We want them to have contingencies in place so that they're in a position to deal with it."
In 1942, the federal government completed construction of Grand Coulee Dam, feeding development of farmland up and down the Columbia Basin.
Today, the region is a driving economic force of agricultural production, and dozens of small cities and towns support the industry with packing sheds and processing plants.
However, a project intended to deliver water to 1 million acres from the reservoir behind the dam was never fully completed, and many farmers received permission to dig wells to irrigate their crops.
Those farmers drew their water from the Odessa aquifer -- the same underground aquifer those cities and towns drill into for water -- and the aquifer began a steady and precipitous decline.
Some wells already have gone dry, and the solution has generally been to just drill a deeper well, said Paul Stoker, executive director of the Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area. But he said a study by the group shows that deeper water won't be there, won't be usable or will be too expensive to access in the future.
The aquifer had about 50 million acre-feet of accessible water in 1960, and 40 million acre-feet already have been pumped out, he said.
"Altogether, we pump about 1 million acre-feet a year," he said. "What happens in 10 to 12 years is that for a large portion of the area, drilling deeper isn't a solution anymore."
An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.
Among the communities -- big and small -- most affected: Odessa, Lind, Othello, Davenport, Royal City, Sprague, Ritzville, Reardon and Moses Lake.
"We really need to begin examining solutions, and they need to be long-term, sustainable solutions, not the short-term decisions usually made by elected officials while in office," he said.
Washington already ap-proved a drawdown of Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind the dam, to allow more farmers to irrigate with surface water.
State officials hope that move will stabilize the declining aquifer for the remaining water users, Sandison said. Some farmers also have rotated their crops during the dry, summer months to use less water.
"We can make a pretty big dent in the problem," he said. "But we still have to prepare for the future."
Last year, in its first comprehensive look at future water supply and demand in Eastern Washington, the Ecology Department estimated that municipal demand will increase by 24 percent by 2030, while demand from agricultural irrigators will increase 10 percent. Supply is expected to increase just 3 percent.
Researchers attributed the increased demand to influences of climate change, population growth and economic trends.
In the meantime, the state Ecology and Health departments are working with cities and towns to better understand their municipal water systems and their water needs. The Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area is expected to release a final report next month.