Columbia Basin farmers are worried there may not be adequate water supplies for irrigation in the spring because of a fire at a pumping facility, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation doesn’t foresee any impact.
A fire occurred in the John W. Keys III Pump Generating Plant at Grand Coulee Dam in mid-November, believed to have been caused by a switch gear failure, according to the bureau.
“We are fully confident at this time that we will have enough units up by the beginning of March to supply irrigation water to the Columbia Basin,” said Lynne Brougher, public affairs officer at Grand Coulee Dam.
The plant contains six pumps and six pump generators. At the time of the fire, four pumps and five pump generators were undergoing maintenance, according to the bureau. The remaining units were not pumping water into Banks Lake or generating power.
Mike LaPlant, director of the Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation District and president of the Washington State Farm Bureau, said irrigators are concerned there won’t be enough pumps to adequately supply irrigation requirements for the next season.
If repairs aren’t made in time, that means rationing and possible water shortages, LaPlant said.
“It would be devastating, depending on what kind of level of rationing we have,” he said.
LaPlant estimated 5,000 to 6,000 farmers would be impacted, everyone within the Columbia Basin Project. The project supplies water for more than 600,000 acres, Brougher said.
Switching over to dryland production is not an option in the desert-type region, LaPlant said.
LaPlant estimated it would take two months to clean up the process, and annual maintenance and repairs cannot begin until that process is over.
“That’s the biggest fear we have – we’re not going to get enough pumps in time to get an adequate water supply up there,” he said.
Brougher said the fire occurred near the unit on the southern end of the plant. The dam will build containment around that unit and damage, and get the rest of the units back up and running at the same time, she said.
“It’s not like we’re going to clean up everything first and then try to bring units online one at a time,” she said. “That will be going on simultaneously.”
Temporary crews, a total of nine people, began cleaning the rest of the plant Dec. 13.
LaPlant would like to see more people hired to deal with the situation.
“This should be treated as an emergency and double, triple that, whatever it takes,” he said.
Brougher said getting the units back on line and prepared to supply water in the spring is a top priority.
The irrigation district is working to raise awareness of irrigators within the project, in hopes of increasing the level of urgency for the bureau, LaPlant said.
“We’ve seen a lot of pump outages in the last couple years, just maintenance that hasn’t gotten done over the years,” he said.
Brougher said outages were due to the age of the pump and the facilities. There are plans to do major work to rehabilitate the plant in 2016-2017, she said.
Brougher said farmers should plan on operating as normal.
“We fully expect we will have irrigation water available at the beginning of March,” she said.