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Ice Harbor Lock and Dam on the lower Snake River near Burbank, Washington Jeff T. Green/Getty Images
KNOCK IT DOWN? The Ice Harbor Dam is one of four along the Columbia-Snake River system that could be breached to meet requirements of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. An environmental impact statement on the move is expected in February.

Irrigators association puts price on losing water access

Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association has developed a risk mitigation response assessing the cost of new moves in an Endangered Species Act lawsuit.

What happens when environmental groups, along with state agencies, come together in court? In some cases, established practices get tossed aside and new approaches come forward. But at what cost? That’s what the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association has pulled together in a new document released recently.

The effort started in 2016 when Michael Simon, a U.S. District judge, vacated the 2014 Biological Opinion for Columbia-Snake River hydro project operations, which was a centerpiece for fish protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, a group including the state of Oregon, Earthjustice and other plaintiffs argued that the Columbia River System Operation agencies had failed to include adequate operation measured to protect 13 listed salmon and steelhead species from “risk of extinction,” according to CSRIA.

In the process, Simon ordered CRSO agencies to prepare a new environmental impact statement that would become the foundation for a new biological opinion that could lead to a change in hydro project operations. According to CSRIA, the order was very specific “in that he told the agencies to review in detail a Lower Snake River dam breaching/drawdown alternative,” the group says.

“The judge is going to break something. We don’t know what, but he is going to break something,” says Darryll Olsen, a CSRIA board member.

Under the move by the court, the Columbia River System Operation agencies are to prepare the EIS to identify appropriate mitigation measure including the associated risks and liability. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington state Legislature directed development of a study of dam-breaching impacts including what would happen to the irrigation sector if the dams are breached.

One concern expressed by CSRIA is that the new EIS is being prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Denver technical center staff. The challenge, according to Olsen, is that this group has little experience with the mainstem Snake-Columbia River irrigation operations, and the level of direct irrigator interaction in development of the EIS has been limited.

Putting a price on dam breaching

CSRIA has developed its own look at the financial impact of breaching four dams in the system that would affect the Ice Harbor-Upper McNary Pool Irrigation Sector. “There are 91,000 acres in the Ice Harbor and McNary area. That being the case, you in society know better and want to cooperate with the irrigation sector to mitigate us,” Olsen says. “Under the dictate of Gov. Inslee, the study showed that if the breaches occur, this is what you have to do [for mitigation].”

The group evaluated the 91,000 acres, the crops involved, the investment in pumping and lift stations, and the potential loss of income. Along with that loss of productive income, the group also looked at the reduced asset value given that nonproductive land has less value. They determined that the current average value for the 91,000 acres is $16,400 per acre.

The breaching/drawdown risk deflates the asset holdings. To determine that potential impact, CSRIA studied the issue by providing a ranking question to 12 market entities to identify how land values may be affected. Those entities predicted drops in value up to 90%, with two answering “no sale.” Overall, the discount rate ranged from 30% to 50%. Basically, the market would not reject the land assets but would substantially reduce their value.

For the Ice Harbor Pool, the impact would be a 30% to 50% reduction in value, ranging from $263.8 million to $439.6 million. For the Upper McNary Pool, the impact would be 30%, or $182.2 million. “This is more than engineers on pump stations counting bolts,” Olsen says. “This is land assets, facilities, lost income.”

Olsen adds that if pumping stations must be changed to access water for that land, it would take time. “You don't just slam those things in there; it would cost two to three years of lost income,” he says. “We’re looking at processing facilities on-site and looking at changes to the market relationships you have. Lamb Weston [a food processing company] isn’t going to wait forever if you stop growing potatoes.”

To fund that mitigation cost, which would come from the state of Washington along with the Bonneville Power Association, would require debt service that would be between $24 million and $37 million per year.

CSRIA prepared an in-depth white paper to explore this mitigation need. Olsen notes that this involves private land holdings, and he adds that the association doesn’t have much confidence in the Bureau of Reclamation doing the valuation for mitigation purposes. “They have no experience on direct pumping off the river, and they have not conducted all the technical reviews the way that they have been done in the past, which included key stakeholder groups vetting the methodologies,” he notes.

He adds that there are alternative approaches that could be evaluated including deep-pool drawdowns, rather than dam breaching, that would have far less impact to economic sectors including power generation and recreation. The major impact may be to barge transportation of wheat, but Olsen notes there is a viable rail alternative. It’s an option CSRIA leaders say is worth looking into.

This new report sets the stage for necessary conversation when the new EIS is released. Timing for that study is February or March. When that occurs, affected groups can then react. As it stands now, Olsen anticipates a report with a focus on dam breaching and radical changes in water flow for the irrigation area.

You can check out the in-depth white paper on this issue online.

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