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Columbia Basin tour tells of water woes

Columbia Basin wells are pumping 10,000-year-old water from aquifers


Capital Press

MOSES LAKE, Wash. -- Key decision makers recently got a close look at those threatened by declining aquifer levels in the Columbia Basin.

The Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area conducted a tour of the most affected parts of the area the afternoon of Nov. 16. The tour also included Royal City, Othello, Warden and Schrag. The management area covers Adams, Franklin, Grant and Lincoln counties.

The big message from the tour was that ground water in the region is not sustainable and all ground-water users are affected, said Paul Stoker, executive director of the management area.

"At least 90 percent of the ground-water wells are unsustainable in the long run, and pumping old water," he said. "We have to make some arrangement to connect them to sustainable water to continue cities and farms here."

Many of the deeper irrigation wells are pumping water older than 10,000 years, and much is poor quality and needs to be treated. Other water wells are declining faster than they can recharge.

Othello, Wash., farmer Blake Higley, doesn't plan to deepen the wells until absolutely necessary. One well would need to be completely redrilled, which is cost-prohibitive, he said. Water costs him about $5 per acre-inch, not counting the additional expenditures for equipment and maintenance, he said.

Many of Higley's neighbors are working to drill even deeper.

Water in several wells of his comes from below sea level, he said.

"The deepest wells within a few miles of me are in the 2,700- to 2,800-foot level," he said. "Some have pretty good water; some, they went that far and still don't have much water."

Management area consulting hydrogeologist Kevin Lindsey said the aquifers are not connected.

"From a water management point of view, we need to figure out how to deal with that body of water, this body, shallow water, deep water," he said. "Recharge becomes a very important picture out here."

Of the 24 cities in the region, only Harrington and Mesa are pumping new water.

Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, Wash., is on the Washington State Legislature's water committee. Funding for expanding the Columbia Basin Water Project is in question, as the costs will come from taxpayers, Morton said.

"Whether they can carry any more burdens at this point doesn't look very favorable," he said.

The only source of sustainable water is the Columbia River, said Paul Stoker, executive director of the Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area.

The current attempt to increase delivery of the water, by the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is the first attempt, Stoker said.

That project will deliver water to irrigation and municipal ground-water users.

"It's been ignored for 40 years," Stoker said. "Our time is running out. It's time we got more aggressive in finding solutions."


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