SPOKANE — Scientists call it water mining.
Like thousands of straws in a swimming pool, wells are slowly sucking the water from under a huge swath of the Columbia Basin.
They’re not going to drain it, but as wells for homes, towns, industries and farms draw down the water level, there are concerns for the future.
Water is being withdrawn from the so-called "Odessa subarea" at a faster rate by far than it can be restored. Test wells show the water level has dropped between 200 and 300 feet in the past three decades.
"This is Odessa. It rains eight inches a year out there," John Covert, a state Department of Ecology hydrogeologist, said recently.
The subarea covers 2,000 square miles, stretching from just east of Moses Lake to just east of Ritzville. It covers portions of Grant, Adams, Lincoln and Franklin counties.
Scientists and politicians have watched the drawdown for more than 30 years.
But the Ecology Department is just now discussing whether to stop taking new applications for water rights for large users in the Odessa subarea, a step that wouldn’t affect new domestic wells.
Most new applications are denied anyway. That has made existing water rights more valuable than farms in some areas.
"It (water) is going to be worth its weight in gold here in another 10, 15 years. There’s a finite amount," said Art Tackett, city administrator in Connell, who believes the state is being too restrictive, at least in his area.
The Odessa subarea lies over a portion of two underground aquifers. Their depth, and the depth of the wells tapped into them, varies depending on location.
Both are being depleted, Covert said.
Hydrologists estimate that wells for all uses pulled about 14,000 acre-feet from the Odessa subarea in 1963.
In 1968, then-Gov. Dan Evans issued an executive order closing the area to new water rights. The governor’s action was intended to give the Ecology Department time to assess the situation and make plans for the future.
But the take of water continued to grow as landowners drilled new wells under existing rights.
By 1970, the aquifers were relinquishing 117,000 acre-feet annually, an eight-fold increase in seven years. Covert estimates the current draw is about 250,000 acre-feet, and hasn’t changed much in the past two decades.
The state in 1973 decided the water table should not be allowed to recede more than 300 feet over the next 30 years. That has not been exceeded, although the water table has dropped more than 200 feet in some test wells.
Cutting off new permits won’t stop the decline.
But that step — in combination with a relatively recent emphasis on investigating illegal water use — should slow the decline.
Eventually, the aquifers should reach an equilibrium in which the amount of water being withdrawn is matched by the amount of water being drawn into it, Covert said.
By then, the water level will be far lower than it is now, and some farmers likely will have given up on irrigation, authorities predict.
Completion of the planned 1 million acre Columbia Basin Project would help recharge the aquifer, scientists conclude. Only about 530,000 acres are under irrigation from canals.
Although many farmers remain hopeful, the expansion has not happened, largely because of concerns over saving salmon.
To expand the canals now "would take a shift in national priority," said Bill Gray of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
"We have water issues, we have power issues," he said. "Is there a national need for additional irrigation acres today? Those are some of the questions where the answer would have to be ‘yes’ " before the irrigation project would be expanded.
The Ecology Department has not processed any new water rights for the Odessa subarea since the mid-1990s. The agency had a backlog when the work stopped.
This year, the agency’s Spokane office resumed work on 32 pending applications, including some dating to the late 1980s and some filed as recently as last year. Three have been granted; seven have been withdrawn; 22 are still pending.
Some farmers withdrew their applications after receiving Ecology Department letters telling them they stood little chance of receiving a new water right.
The three successful applicants all live in the northeastern corner of the subarea, where the water supply is still adequate, said Covert. They will receive a combined 1,988 acre-feet more of water a year.
The pending applications should be processed by early next year.
Once they’re finished, the Ecology Department will start talking with residents of the subarea about no longer accepting new applications, said George Schlender, the agency’s water resources manager in Spokane.
"The outcome isn’t certain," Schlender said. "My desire may be to close the basin, but we have to go through public comments, and there may be another direction that people want to go."
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