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A Story with a Happy Ending

Like many things in my life, I became interested in the irrigation project of the Columbia River by accident. It started in the winter of 1977 almost 20 years ago when the proposed editor of Outdoors West said he would accept the job if officers of the Federation of Western Outdoors Club (of which I was then president) would guarantee to write articles for the magazine, adding that he expected 3000 words with the deadline a few months away.
I thought this would be a breeze, because I knew that a state conference of Audubon chapters was coming up and a speaker of the Bureau of Reclamation was to talk on the Columbia Basin Project. I thought I could just sit there, take notes, and whip out a definitive article on the Project.
Alas, I wasn't able to take a single note because the speaker never mentioned the Project directly. He spoke in detail about the Esquatzel Coulee, a small offshoot; he enlarged about the great mitigation or tradeoff of one species with another, and how many more ducks there would be, and similar bureaucratic bemusements. I dozed gently through it all. But when I awakened I realized that I had taken on the job of writing a 3000 word article about something of which I knew absolutely nothing.
Faced with that reality, I launched on a project that would last through the next fifteen years.
For starters I hopefully sent for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. It took almost a month to reduce that enormous document to seventeen pages. Then I went on a day tour with some of the Bureau staff, including Jim Cole, the project manager. I interviewed the US Fish and Wildlife in Olympia, the Department of Ecology in Lacy, the Washington State Game Department (now known as the Department of Wildlife), in their office in Olympia, and some of their workers in the field.
Also I spent two days with the Bohnet family in Wilson Creek, who were dryland farmers with a love for the land, and who opposed the Project as did most dryland farmers. They used very little chemical fertilizer, rotated their crops, ploughed in the stubble, and let some of the land lie fallow.
All this amateur research gave birth to the article I wrote for the editor of Outdoors West, entitled Roll on, Columbia. I'll quote from the opening sentence:
"With progress defined in terms of greater exploitation of the land and ever-increasing generation of power" Woodie Guthrie wrote his Columbia River song. He said: "Your power is turning the darkness to dawn" and he described the Dam as "the biggest thing built by the hands of man, to run the great factories and water the land."
I questioned whether Woodie would have written the song as he did, had he known that this great irrigation project, as well as others throughout the West, could result in the destruction of the soil because of the use of massive doses of chemically-based fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides; the monocrop and the burning of the stubble and, finally would lead to the desertification of the land. This was already occurred in the Palouse country of Washington and in parts of the Sacramento Valley in California.
Dana Lyons now sings about saving our ancient forests and Bill Oliver sings about preserving our habitat.
A little historical overview is due here. The Columbia Basin Project was spawned by the depression of the 30s as a vast multi-purpose project to be administered by the Bureau for flood control, irrigation of dry land for farming and for generation of cheap power, as well as the creation of jobs. As was characteristic of the times, little consideration was given to the fish, wildlife, flora, or to recreation and aesthetic values.
The Dam was completed in 1942. By 1973 irrigation water service was available to 526,000 acres west of the Dam; approximately one-half remained to be developed. The Bureau issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) early in 1975.
But while I was busy writing my critical article many others studied the DEIS. The economists were particularly involved, also the dryland farmers, who voted 60% against the project, as well as environmentalists throughout the state. Congress appropriated only enough funds to build the necessary tunnels to hook up to Grand Coulee power plant. This was known as the Second Bacon Siphon. The Bureau was then left dangling for a few years. They needed funds to complete the thousands of miles of canals and ditches to get the water up onto the land.
When new appropriations were finally made they had an awkward twist: money would be available only if matched by state funds. This threw the ball into the court of the state legislature. In 1983, spurred on by Senator "Tub" Hanson who represented the Grand Coulee district, the state senate passed the necessary legislation, but, alas, the whole thing got bogged down in a sub committee of the House when the respected agricultural economist of Whitman University, Dr. Norman Whitlesey, pointed out that the farmers will be paying about $3.00 per acre for irrigation power, but the cost of replacing the lost and used electricity is $171 per acre each year, or about $100 million annually. All this shortfall would, of course, be picked up by the ratepayers. This conclusion was further strengthened by the findings of Dr. Glen Petry, economist of the Washington State University and by Dr. Marion Marts, economist of the University of Washington, both of whom found the cost/benefit to be twenty-three cents to the dollar.
The Bureau, reeling from this setback, gathered support from those who sought to benefit by the project, and made another attempt in 1984 to get state matching funds. This time, sailing through the Senate, the House allocated $150,000 to study the project. Much time passed and upon inquiry I learned that they did not intend to study the project, but instead to study the DEIS. That's the last I heard of the $150.000.
During all this time many environmental organizations took a strong stand in opposition to the Project: the Sierra Club, the Washington Environmental Council, Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, Friends of the Earth and the Washington Audubon State Council. They testified before the state legislature and turned out for hearings on the DEIS. In 1989, Governor Booth Gardner got into the act and directed all state agencies to submit comments on the DEIS.
The Department of Ecology was very. critical, particularly with regard to water quality.
The Department of Fisheries stated: "The continued expansion of the Columbia Basin Project is inconsistent with our efforts, in that even a relatively minor reduction in juvenile or adult salmon and steelhead survival is unacceptable in the context of the current cumulative detrimental effects of all the water development projects in the Columbia River Basin. "
The Department of Transportation expressed dissatisfaction. The Department of Wildlife said in part: "We believe this document may very well be misleading to the public regarding what fish and wildlife losses can be anticipated."
The Department of Energy wound up its conclusions: "Given the existent information...(we) must question the wisdom of the state's allocation of funds to the Columbia Basin Project rather than to more worthy causes."
And, the final blow came from the federal General Accounting Office: "In summary, we found that the Bureau's 1984 benefit/cost analysis did not conform to the Water Resources Council's Principles and Guidelines for preparing such analyses. As a result, the costs were understated and the benefits overstated."
One must wonder who supports this project. It is not too difficult to conjecture that the supporters are the chemical companies, the farm machinery manufacturers, the banks, insurance companies and chambers of commerce. Also that some of the politicians were supporting it for the usual pork barrel reasons.
Many were opposed to it. Yet the Bureau stubbornly insisted on going ahead with it. What is it that impels government bureaucracies to continue with a project, no matter how impractical, how damaging, how expensive, and one that is in the face of common sense? Is it a form of empire building? Is it that if they do not keep increasing projects they would be reduced to the mere maintenance of those already in place and they figure that's no way to build an empire?
In this instance the Bureau tried an end run by deciding to start with a mere 70,000 acres rather than the whole package. Everyone was awaiting the EIS on this reduced venture when Dan Beard, the new director of the Bureau, publicly announced that the Columbia River Basin Project had been definitely shelved.
Dan Beard, as you all know, is now on the staff of the National Audubon Society.
In concluding I want to go back to a field trip led by the Bureau staff in the early years of my involvement. We were wandering in a dry natural area that was slated to be irrigated should the Project be completed. We came upon a beetle a funny little fellow that at the slightest touch stood on its head. No doubt this must have been a survival technique of considerable value. I thought sadly that standing on its head, for whatever reason, would be of no help for the little beetle when the waters came. But it is safe now, thanks to the thousands of concerned people.
This story has a happy ending not only for the little beetle, but for the land, and for all of us.

Hazel Wolf

(Last updated October 24, 1998)

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