Moses Lake, WA 98837, USA

Water, Water, Water: A look at the Grand Coulee Dam’s history and issues surrounding water in the region

For The Basin Business Journal

MOSES LAKE — It’s easy to think that the Grand Coulee Dam was built solely to generate electricity.

That was a feature, of course, and the over 2,200 megawatts of initially installed electricity generation (another 4,200 megawatts would be added by the mid-1970s) made possible the aluminum smelters and the armaments factories that helped the United States win World War II.

But electricity was something of an afterthought. The primary purpose of the Grand Coulee Dam from the beginning was irrigation — to provide water for farmers across 1 million acres of Columbia Basin land.

“We always joke that the Grand Coulee Dam was our diversion dam, and electricity was just the first use,” said Craig Simpson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District.

The Grand Coulee Dam was the centerpiece of the Columbia Basin Project, the effort to create a canal-fed irrigation system that would allow much of the scrubland that was the Columbia Basin to be farmed. According to an official history of the Columbia Basin Project produced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1998, irrigation backers fought tenaciously throughout the mid-1930s for what finally emerged on January 1, 1942 — a 550-foot-high dam, tall enough to both generate power and provide water to the Columbia Basin.

But that’s only the beginning. To get water from Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake — the giant reservoir formed behind Grand Coulee Dam — down to farmers in places like Quincy, Warden, Othello and Mattawa, hundreds of miles of canals, tunnels, siphons (tunnels where water is moved uphill), ditches, weirs and pumps were built and installed to carry water across the region and as far south as Pasco.

It is, however, not enough. Nearly 80 years after the Grand Coulee Dam was finished, the Columbia Basin Project only irrigates 670,000 acres, far short of the 1.1 million originally projected. Because the needed infrastructure — mainly the East High Canal, which would deliver Columbia River water to the eastern fifth of the Columbia Basin Project — was never built.

And it will likely not be built in the foreseeable future.

Most of the center pivots you will see watering fields of alfalfa, apples, corn, onions and potatoes as you drive along the roads of Grant County are irrigated by Columbia River water provided daily to farmers by three irrigation districts — Quincy, East Columbia (which also includes portions of Adams and Lincoln counties) and South Columbia (which includes portions of Adams and Franklin counties).

“In our area, we deliver water to landowners,” Simpson said. “Irrigators place orders daily, we send water to their pumps, and they pump it to their center pivots.”

On a hot day in July, Simpson said the East Low Canal system can run roughly 3,000 cubic feet per second (approximately 22,400 gallons per second) through its network in order to meet demand.

However, those farmers in the Columbia Basin Project’s boundaries who cannot get river water are reliant on wells drilled deep into the rapidly depleting Odessa Aquifer. The state of Washington is looking for alternative ways of getting river water to those farmers, and has set aside $40 million in the 2019-21 capital budget, including $15 million for a “surface water irrigation system” for 16,000 acres east of Moses Lake and north of Interstate 90 to come off the East Low Canal.

But it isn’t just farmers who are reliant on water from deep underground. Every city in the Columbia Basin provides water for residents and industries from the aquifers deep under our feet.

“The collective pumping in the Columbia Basin exceeds the recharge,” said Tim Flynn, president and principal hydrologist with Aspect Consulting. “Aquifers have begun to decline, and there’s a lot of work being done to address that issue.”

Flynn, whose firm is currently helping the City of Othello as it begins work on an industrial wastewater treatment and storage system that seeks to replace well water for industrial use, said that the Columbia Basin sits on a complex layer of basalt aquifers. It’s not uncommon anymore, Flynn said, for cities to drill wells 1,000 feet down to get water.

“Basalts are laid as a flow,” Flynn said. “But over geologic time, they are folded, displaced, deformed, and compartments are formed.”

Those compartments are often not well connected, Flynn said, meaning it is possible to pump from a well and not affect nearby wells.

However, according to a 2009 report from the Columbia Basin Ground Water Management Area, “most of the natural ground water being pumped from the basalt aquifer system is over 10,000 years old and receives limited recharge.”

One approach several cities are taking involves separating water used for drinking and bathing from that which is used to water lawns, cool data centers and clean vegetables for processing. Quincy, with the help of Microsoft, is in the midst of a huge project to treat and reuse industrial wastewater so the city’s industries can limit their reliance on well water.

Othello is also looking at something similar, largely because water is the limit to future growth and development.

Flynn said both cities are looking at using some of these declining aquifers to store treated wastewater.

“Aquifers are great vessels for storage,” he said. “You inject into the aquifer and pull it back when you need it. It’s in its infancy as a water supply strategy, but it could work well in places like Othello.”

While no one locally is talking about reusing wastewater for drinking, Flynn said that any water injected back into an aquifer would have to be safe to drink.

“It has to be clean water,” he said.