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The Columbia Basin Project (CBP) is the largest comprehensive reclamation project in the United States. An intertwined system of water diversion, capture, storage, movement, and use for hydroelectric production and irrigation, made famous by the capstone of Grand Coulee Dam, the CBP completely transformed the arid environment of central Washington and the economy of the Pacific Northwest (PNW). As this project stretches now into 75 years of plans, actions, reactions, and potential future actions, there is a surprisingly small amount of literature examining this project and its far-reaching implications. Originally planned as a reclamation project, the CBP morphed over time as values and priorities changed; never achieving completion, approximately two-thirds of the original planned project acreage is currently irrigated, but with escalating ecologic and economic implications. The most obvious ecologic implication has fixated debates about development in the Pacific Northwest, and that is the near annihilation of historic salmon runs due to dam construction. As this question (salmon versus dams) consumes most scholarly literature related to the CBP, we chose instead to examine everything except ecologic implications. This article reviews the existing literature on the CBP from several fields, noting that many economic, social, legal, policy, and agricultural questions remain unanswered after 75 years. Those unanswered questions become particularly important in light of recent discussions within Washington State concerning completing the CBP, thus potentially increasing the size of irrigated lands by one-third in the Columbia Basin Project.


I n the P acific N orthwest , there appear to be two major religions: irrigation and salmon. Historic anadromous fish runs of legendary proportions supported a rich variety of Native tribal economies for centuries in this region of sharp geographic contrasts. Several species of salmon started life in icy mountain streams high in the Columbia River watershed, migrated down to the Pacific Ocean, then late in life made their heroic return upstream against [End Page 96] the currents to their waters of origin to spawn and die. Salmon provided the major food supply, basis for a trade economy, and spiritual soul of the Northwestern identity. People, like salmon, followed the flows of the river, migrated with seasons, and lived in cycles of lean and fat times. But white settlement, followed by urbanized coastal growth, and massive alterations of the region’s primary hydrologic resource, the Columbia River, have remade this landscape into a radically different vision of what nature can provide. In the past century, irrigation agriculture expanded with religious fervor across a huge swath of the Pacific Northwest. Building the infrastructure of irrigation agriculture consumed the focus of much intellectual energy, political wrangling, and economic subsidization. Irrigation took on biblical proportions and came with the deep spiritual belief that this region’s lands needed to be tamed, the unruly and wild Columbia River needed to be subdued, and nature’s potential could not be reached without “reclaiming” the land from its original unacceptable condition.

Now the Columbia River is the most dammed river system in the world, with 75 major dams (14 along its mainstem). Among those dams is the infrastructure for the largest reclamation project in America, the Columbia Basin Project (CBP), which has become a desert agrarian empire, made possible by the slack water held behind dams in storage for irrigation (Getches 1996). As this project stretches into 75 years of plans, actions, reactions, and potential future actions, there is a surprisingly small amount of literature examining this massive project and its far-reaching implications. Originally designed as a reclamation project of 1.1 million irrigated acres of agriculture, the project never achieved completion. Today, approximately two-thirds of the original planned project acreage is irrigated, but with escalating ecologic and economic implications, as more water than the entire annual flow of the Colorado River is poured onto the Columbia Plateau each year. Because the existence of dams on the Columbia River decimated salmon runs, tensions between supporters of salmon and supporters of irrigation delineate the topographic lines of social stress in the region, with polarizing views on both sides. Moreover, because several salmonid species now have the dubious distinction of being listed as endangered species, the subjects of salmon, riverine ecology, ecological impacts of dams, hydropower generation, and habitat restoration dominate both the politics of the region and the academic literature related to the Columbia River.

Perceiving what seem to be unanswered questions and a lack of critical analysis of the CBP itself, we undertook a survey of the scholarly literature [End Page 97] on the CBP covering the period from the end of the first development of the project to the present. The search for literature focused on identifying the availability of published information to a skilled researcher without a specialization in the topic, identifying topics that would be available to anyone who is familiar with literature indexes and knows how to conduct a search, but does not necessarily have any specific domain knowledge. Any effects of the CBP on fish and wildlife, river ecology, biology, and hydropower are well represented in the literature. Thus, the search and its results were limited to published scholarly literature in non-ecological realms, including the fields of agriculture, agricultural economics, environmental history, geography, political science, and legal review. Of particular interest to the authors was finding the presence or absence of literature addressing the winners and losers of the CBP, consistencies and contradictions in the motivation and execution of the project, and evaluations of the project’s success.

Geographic Setting

The Columbia River, the fourth largest in North America, extends more than 1,210 miles as it wends a fast-moving but circuitous path from its headwaters in the Canadian province of British Columbia, down to the point at which it dumps into the Pacific Ocean. Headed essentially south through the state of Washington, albeit with severe turns and directional twists, the river then heads west through the Columbia Gorge, where a deep notch cuts across the rising Cascade Mountain Range. Here, the Columbia River serves both as the political boundary between the states of Washington and Oregon and as a water route from the interior to the ocean. With a total catchment that begins in British Columbia and encompasses 260,000 square miles in parts of Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, this massive river drains an area larger than France (Corps 1958). The largest topographic features, which confine the watershed basin, are the outer spurs of the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Cascade Range to the west, with a vast, arid, treeless expanse in between. Looking from north to south, the Okanagan Highlands of British Columbia give way to the Columbia Plateau, which itself fades into desert near the south end of Washington near the Oregon border. The defining characteristic of the hydro-climatic regime in the Columbia Basin lies in the cycle of heavy mountain snow pack and spring melt that provide almost all the water, as this river meanders through a basin region that receives a scant 6 to 10 inches of rainfall annually. Thus, the Columbia River holds practically [End Page 98] talismanic significance for irrigators in the Columbia Basin, most of whom would not be able to farm without the Columbia River and its water.

A complex tectonic and glacial history created the raw ingredients needed for fertile soil, which went unused by agriculture for millennia due to the extremely dry climate. Oozing basalt flows laid down minerals for millions of years all across the Columbia region; later, glacial action pulverized and scoured off the top of the landscape in the upper Columbia basin (Unnamed 1924). Glacial floods then deposited this on the Columbia Plateau. Pepper in wind-swept ash from Cascade volcanic eruptions and windblown flood deposits to this rich loess deposit, and all the ingredients for fertile soil exist, except water. Early Euro-American irrigators did establish small-scale operations prior to the Columbia Basin Project, but not until the federal government provided the massive infusion of capital and vision for structural and social engineering was this scarred and weathered region able to support the intensive irrigation agriculture that now exists.

Columbia Basin Project

The CBP, usually mentioned synonymously with the capstone components of Grand Coulee Dam (GCD) and Roosevelt Lake, actually consists of several dams, reservoirs, and canals. A total of 331 miles of main canals carry water siphoned off the Columbia River, stored in reservoirs, pumped and diverted onward via 1,339 miles of lateral canals; this massive diversion sprinkles the high desert with enough water to create an agricultural empire based in central and eastern Washington State (Ortolono 2000). Currently just over 670,000 acres of land receive irrigation waters from the CBP, with nearly 1,100,000 acres classified as irrigable within the boundaries of the CBP.

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Literature Survey

Early irrigation schemes within the rain shadow of the Cascades floundered, and farmers in this region without irrigation often failed in the early pioneer days, near the turn of the 20th century (Macinko 1961). The need for predictable water supplies for farmers coalesced in localized gravity-fed irrigation [End Page 99] systems; but at any larger scale, the cost of such infrastructure required the kind of investment that only the federal government could provide. However, federal money would bring federal control and/or federal visions of what the result should be for this region (Macinko 1963; Pitzer 1991).

With considerable pressure from local boosters, Congressional interest in the Columbia Basin took hold after the Corps of Engineers produced the “308 Report” for the Columbia River (Unnamed 1924; USACE 1933), and the Bureau of Reclamation (hereafter Bureau) also produced a plan for reclamation through regional irrigation. The Bureau report detailed potential for development of the Columbia River, with original suggestions that included a series of six dams on the mainstem of the river, and irrigation to be subsidized via profits from the sale of hydroelectricity generated by the Grand Coulee Dam. Interestingly, the Corps report also detailed potential for development of the Columbia River but recommended against building the Grand Coulee Dam, due to a lack of market for either the massive amounts of electricity the dam would generate or the food that irrigation would produce (USACE 1933).

During the 1920s, and under the Hoover administration until 1932, the primary focus of federal money in the West came in the form of reclamation projects, but even by the standards of reclamation, the Columbia Basin Project was the mother lode of all projects. A complex series of dams would have to be constructed, then hydroelectricity generated, and eventually in the future, irrigation developed. The only fiscal logic was that irrigation infrastructural costs were far too much for farmers to afford; therefore, hydroelectricity sales would be used to subsidize water delivery to farmers, who would eventually repay the initial cost of construction of the dams but with no interest accrued. In a grand but convoluted scheme of total regional development, the federal government loaned irrigation farmers the capital needed to “reclaim” the vast inland desert of eastern Washington, via construction of dams (the largest of which being Grand Coulee Dam) that would generate hydroelectric power, the profits from which would subsidize the cost of providing irrigation water to be stored behind the dam.

As so often happens, though, political winds change, and so it was with the transition of presidential administrations from Hoover to Roosevelt. When Franklin Roosevelt came to office, he had bigger headaches than providing water to the unpopulated outback region of the West. Roosevelt explicitly pressed plans for the CBP to the front of his agenda, but as a makework project that would both employ people and provide a translocation [End Page 100] scheme for refugees from the dustbowl-ravaged Midwestern states (Egan 2006). Thus, the CBP transformed into a social engineering extravaganza far beyond just a structural engineering, regional development, or hydrologic project intended to provide land and water so that farmers could settle in the semi-arid region of Washington and farm on small landholdings.

After World War II, the CBP suffered setbacks, and the immense planning phase stretched on. Water finally arrived to irrigators from 1948 to 1952, but costs continued to escalate as more elements of this massive hydrologic re-plumbing project came online. National political and economic realities had changed over the decades. FDR’s original vision of small family farms, guaranteed success by government-subsidized irrigation waters, went by the wayside as population redistribution fell out of favor and small family farm plots went first to larger-scale plots and soon thereafter to corporate agribusiness operations (Brooks 1957; Macinko 1961, 1975). By the 1970s, times had changed again and environmental legislation passed during the height of the environmental era would provide new headaches for the developers of the CBP. In the past few decades, the project has remained mostly static in size, never finished, but with 670,000 acres connected into the irrigation system. Now this entire project is undergoing scrutiny once again as new problems with groundwater depletion, due to non-CBP farmers using well pumps for irrigation, have spurred a reopening of discussions about the CBP and investigations as to the feasibility of developing the remaining one-third of original CBP lands by siphoning off more surface water from the Columbia River.

Motivation and Execution

The origins of the CBP began with a desire by local citizens to provide irrigation water for farming, but this quickly expanded as the CBP joined larger social and political trends of the Depression and New Deal eras. Regional planning hit its stride in the 1920s, and many considered the CBP to be the height of elegance and planned perfection, what historian Richard Lowitt called the “Planned Promise Land” (Rowley 2002). This is a term heavily laden with biblical hints at salvation and bounty in perpetuity; similarly, this particular ideal of nature was also reminiscent of Smythe and Newlands, two early architects of irrigation in the West (Rowley 2002; Egan 2006). Steiner discusses the social vision of the New Deal in relationship to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the CBP, among other examples of regional planning (Steiner 1983). [End Page 101]

Irish (2001) sought to examine the large and complex struggle in both Washingtons, not to mention the United States as a whole, over public power and private enterprise as competitive philosophies for establishing the credibility of the United States economy during the decades before and after the 1930s. Pointing out the contentious debate about the value of Grand Coulee in the national arena, Irish also showed how regional infighting detracted even further from the potential of the CBP as a financial scheme (Irish 2001). Oregon power alliances backed the plan to build Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia and much closer to the urban coastal region. Therefore, when this dam project gained Congressional approval before Grand Coulee, the CBP appeared to be a house of cards built on the pipe dream of selling power to urban areas that would no longer be in the market for electricity if they relied on hydropower from Bonneville. But the dogged and persistent efforts of a few people in Washington State, along with Clarence Dill, one of Washington’s senators, kept Grand Coulee on the table. Dill had the ear of FDR and pressed the case forward when the tide apparently turned against the likelihood of building the Grand Coulee Dam—and with it, a public water works project so massive that it remains today the nation’s largest single source of hydroelectricity (Irish 2001).

Even beyond the larger battle of public versus private development, elements within the federal government that all favored federal control of natural resources over private-sector development maintained a debilitating sibling rivalry as they vied for supremacy in implantation of federal plans. Before water actually flowed to irrigators, Bessey optimistically predicted a hybrid version of the Tennessee Valley Authority that would have centralized control, thus theoretically coordinating interagency activities and smoothing over the multiple layers of bureaucratic jurisdiction, all busily working to develop the resources of the Columbia Basin Project (Bessey 1951). Instead, this rivalry, famously outlined for water resources in the West in general by Reisner (1984), remained true to form in the Pacific Northwest as both the Bureau and the Department of Agriculture set their sights on the CBP. Both agencies essentially agreed that small family farms should be the prime beneficiaries of the CBP; however, each agency wished to be the primary administrative agent of the program and pressed their own plan for doing so (Utter 2002). The rivalry became so paralyzing that it ultimately created such a power vacuum that both agencies failed to achieve their goals, and larger private interests prevailed in the end, as Utter notes in her detailed look at the fight for control of the family farms in the CBP (Utter 2002). [End Page 102] Without any cohesive plan to ensure the originally envisioned settlement pattern of small family farms, larger, more-corporate interests became the real beneficiaries of the CBP.

This reality would merely confirm the worst fears of Whittlesey and others, who recognize that on the continuum of government spending for regional development, extreme circumstances could precipitate results exactly opposite to the original intentions. Using the CBP as a case in point, Whittlesey (1995) points out how things can go awry. The primary justification for federal investment in planning and constructing public water projects in the West stems from the belief that private development has no incentive to consider larger economic, cultural, or social advantages to projects that may not be strictly profitable in the beginning. Therefore, some projects are beyond the scope of private enterprise. To this end, the federal government historically invested vast sums of money via agencies such as the Bureau and the Corps of Engineers in water projects in the West, assuming a larger social payoff for that investment. However, when taxpayer money funds deficit spending in which the country at large holds the burden of investment, but a small group of private interests becomes a direct beneficiary, public water projects implicitly subsidize special interests at the expense of everyone else. Many see the CBP as a prime example of federal money subsidizing irrigators in the West by funding irrigation that would never be economically viable under other circumstances (Craig 1974; Infanger 1974; Reisner 1984; McCarl 1985; English 1990; Whittlesey 1995; Shepherd 2002).

Winners and Losers

The original vision—thousands of small, family-owned, family–operated farms, dotting the verdant (irrigated) landscape of eastern Washington—did not evolve exactly as expected (Brooks 1957; Macinko 1961). However, the question remains as to whether enough other sectors of society did reap benefits that the CBP is successful with regard to the larger regional or social economy. Moreover, by what criteria should success be measured? One must also ask, within any set of criteria, what trade-offs must be made with regard to the consequences of the CBP in the determination of any success or lack thereof. It would appear that measures of success and criteria of analysis change over time as values and priorities shift.

Miller attempts to measure some of the regional and national changes in economy resulting from irrigation of the Columbia Basin; he used estimated [End Page 103] costs of the CBP compared with agricultural revenues, county tax revenues, retail tax base increase at the state level and within the Basin, and overall income levels, between 1948 and 1957 (Miller 1965). For social change, he considered population increases and net migration estimates as well as spatial distribution of towns and practical constraints to rural population growth. Miller noted that the growth in rural population was less than expected, but he attributed this to social factors related to agricultural and transportation habits and the large farm size (Miller 1965). The author concluded that, looking only at costs versus repayments, it is obvious that the CBP was a complete failure. However, he also concluded that indirect monetary and non-monetary benefits such as population increase, business establishment, investments, and industrial development justify the project. Ten years later, Craig et al. applied the economic tool of fiscal incidence analysis to the CBP in order to assess the performance of publicly provided irrigation as a method of income redistribution (Craig 1974). The authors concluded that economic redistribution provided by public irrigation clearly did not favor those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, and impacts of individual economic redistribution were skewed (Craig 1974).

Janeway outlined the costs and benefits of the project as distributed to individuals and the government, and then examined the differing viewpoints of environmentalists, irrigators, and the Bureau (Janeway 1985). Other scholars outside the U.S. used the CBP in comparative analyses of both international water schemes and regional planning efforts. For example, Dufournaud noted that mutual benefits provide the most common criteria for success on cooperative international water management schemes, but that in the case of the U.S. and Canada with regard to the Columbia River, this logic does not hold true. With riparian parties unequally financially committed, and with benefits accruing unevenly to riparian parties, usually one party would opt out of an imbalanced cooperative scheme; Canada, however, continued to cooperate with the U.S. even as escalating impacts of the CBP continue (Dufournaud 1982). He also found this to be true on the Lower Mekong, utilizing game theory models, and concluded that mutual benefit is not always a determinant criterion for success of international water management (Dufournaud 1982). Hall et al. explored concepts of landscape design and land use planning via a comparative study of two large reclamation projects, the CBP in the U.S. and the IJsselmeerpolders in the Netherlands. Analysis of the policies, goals, planning processes, and the extent to which a regional planning framework was used formed the [End Page 104] basis of their interest, which considered ecological and political context as well (Hall 1989).

Butcher et al. explored two case studies within the Columbia Basin, first on a major tributary of the Columbia, the Snake River, and then on the CBP, to compare the economic trade-offs in the competition between irrigation and hydropower using the same water resource (Butcher 1986). At the time of these case studies, 500,000 acres, or roughly half of the CBP, were irrigated, and the other half had yet to be developed, amid growing debate as to how bringing the other half of the CBP under irrigated cultivation would impact the price of electricity in the region. The authors suggested that the CBP illustrated a basic conflict between state and federal control of water allocation and called for agency reform that would disentangle the rights of irrigation and hydropower, correct interstate externalities, and facilitate interstate water rights transfers if greater efficiency was to be gained in water use in the Northwest (Butcher 1986).


The first and most visually apparent consequence of the CBP is the total transformation of the region’s built environment. Entire generations of citizens in the Pacific Northwest have no memory nor concept of the natural landscape or hydrologic flow regime of the Columbia River, but they do see the second consequence, the regional growth and development centered on the CBP. Certain groups clearly benefit more than others do, but overall economic benefits for the region are undisputed. The ecological and environmental degradation is the third obvious consequence, but that discussion moves beyond the scope of this article.

Some unintended consequences of the CBP, or at least consequences intended but to a different order of magnitude, arose in the disposal of agricultural runoff. When a region with 6 to 10 inches of annual rainfall receives 40 to 50 inches of excess irrigation water, that water must go somewhere. While excess water disposal did figure in to the original reclamation plan, that plan clearly did not sufficiently address the problems. As early as 10 years after water began to flow into the fields, Neff pointed to geologic and engineering difficulties that excess groundwater recharge in the CBP area created, and he outlined some potential pragmatic solutions (Neff 1968). This is no small matter, as during 1990 in the Pacific Northwest, irrigation uses diverted 35.6 million acre-feet of water, but consumptive use by crops accounted for only 36% (or 13.1 million acre-feet) of this total (Russell 1997). [End Page 105] In her article on wasted water, Russell also outlines differences in water law, implementation, and monitoring protocols (or lack thereof) for each of the Columbia Basin states, which only add to the confusion (Russell 1997). She also delineates several inefficiencies in the capture and delivery of water: none of the Columbia Basin states have clearly defined what constitutes wasteful water use; the states generally do not monitor water use or actively look for cases of waste; and significant amounts of water are lost via conveyance, return flows, and farming practices (Russell 1997).

These issues cut to the heart of Western water law and tradition. At the beginning of the CBP in the 1930s, both water-use values and water law evolved out of practical necessity. In the years since this project began, many rounds of legal debate centered on prior appropriation as a system of water law, the definitions of beneficial use, waste, and equity. Scholars attempted to clarify gaps in Western water law, and in some cases acknowledge these gaps as complicit in perpetuating water-use inefficiency in the West (Benson 1996, 1998, 2005; Blumm 1996; Getches 1996, 2004; Russell 1997). A lack of clear understanding on several key legal points continues to haunt Western water laws and their implementation. Which water rights are actually usufructory (use only) rights rather than ownership? How can the legal system address changing meanings in the term “beneficial use” over time? What role should/does increased efficiency have in reallocation of water rights as increasing water demands press current users? What will the unexpected but powerful role of tribal fishing rights do to future allocations? What effect will the realization that those federal reserved water rights implicit in tribal treaty records established water rights prior to nearly all established and current water uses have on future allocations? Add to the mix the newly evolved value of in-stream flow, which necessitates leaving some water in the stream rather than allocating every drop of a river, and the picture changes again (Rodgers 1993; Ellis 1996; Neuman 1998; Ortolono 2000, 2002).

Other unanticipated consequences relate to cost overruns, increased farm size, improvements in agricultural technology, changes in social values for the use of water, and evolution of environmental regulations, as well as ambiguity in measuring indirect costs and benefits. Macinko discussed problems that arose with the CBP as agricultural technology rapidly changed with advancements such as the tractor or weed harrow, which made small-sized farm plots less economically competitive than larger-sized plots. He notes that the inability of planners to adapt as conditions changed institutionalized many management decisions, even as their utility became obsolete [End Page 106] (Macinko 1975). Similarly, cost overruns and a lack of clearly calculated costs and benefits show that political and ideological choices outweighed the economic considerations from the beginning (Shepherd 2002).

Changing social values become apparent as reclamation, the most discussed “benefit” arising from original plans for the CBP, is supplanted first by employment, then by regional development, then by hydropower, and finally by agriculture (Shepherd 2002). Common wisdom held that water utilized for irrigation generated a productive and valuable water use, especially in the arid West. Ways by which the water was captured, stored, diverted, distributed, and consumed, and by which any excess water was disposed of, remained in the sphere of engineering and technical discussions; the fact of water use shunted to irrigation did not raise questions. This is no longer the case, as more-efficient competitors vie for the finite water of the Columbia River Basin.


This review of literature spans several decades and many directions of thought in the hope to provide a cohesive look at how scholars understand and examine this behemoth reclamation project along the Columbia River. Some interesting trends and gaps emerge when the literature is accumulated. First, two basic periods of scholarly interest appear, just after the first round of development in the CBP and then again in the 1990s, with a noticeably large gap of literature in the intervening decades. From a thematic perspective, only the legal literature shows sustained and nuanced interest in the CBP, as the legal and policy implications elude clarity. As the perceived success of the CBP ebbed and flowed with the decades in the views of other scholars, within the legal literature the project continually recurred as a case study exemplar of dysfunction in the legal system.

Several questions remain unanswered after reviewing this literature, and some pertinent questions remain unasked. For instance, insufficient numbers exist to compare the total cost of the irrigation water with the prices that individual farmers pay for their water. Thus, a true accounting of agricultural subsidization that accounts for water subsidies has not yet occurred. Also, there is no discussion in the literature of any alternative considerations to the CBP; if not this project, then what manifestation of development, or lack thereof, is a plausible alternative scenario for the Columbia River Basin? We now have an entire infrastructure of irrigation canals, dams, and reservoirs, but that infrastructure is aging. Will pragmatic safety and repair problems [End Page 107] force a reconsideration of issues long ignored? The newest trend in river management—removal of dams—began due to safety concerns, as the dams themselves age and become unstable. This pragmatic response set off politically charged debates in which a reconsideration of the need for many dams, and the trade-offs made for their existence, is ongoing.

With costs for the CBP construction and infrastructure jumping from 1940 estimates of $487,000,000 to 1964 estimates of $970,000,000, this dampened enthusiasm for completion of the half-finished project (Shepherd 2002). However, it remains unclear to what extent fiscal constraints, a dubious return on the investment dollar, or unevenly distributed benefits of the project influenced decision makers regarding the desire to complete the project, or not. Much of the literature suggests that while all these problems exist, they have not deterred the continuing myth of irrigation as a “valueadded” investment in natural systems that are insufficient in their original state. Thus, underlying philosophic dilemmas have not yet been addressed concerning sustainable water uses. Within the calculus of supply and demand, there is no discussion of decreasing demand, only increasing supply for irrigation and other consumptive uses.

This review is not merely a meditation on ideal conditions versus real constraints; it is our fervent hope that these unanswered questions will not remain unanswered. A thorough understanding of the costs/benefits, motivations, and consequences of this project must be considered, and soon. Current interest in the CBP has reawakened in large part because of groundwater overconsumption. Agricultural operations within the boundary of the original CBP, but outside the developed infrastructure for receiving surface water off the Columbia River, have pumped groundwater from the Odessa aquifer for several decades to irrigate crops. That aquifer now appears substantially depleted, and is dropping a dozen feet each year. The current plan to remedy this problem, as promoted by the Bureau and Washington State’s governor, is to extend the current size of the CBP from 670,000 acres to its original 1.1 million acres (Washington Department of Ecology and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, December 2004; United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation 2006; Blanchard. April 2007).

What long-term consequences will accrue as the CBP continues to provide water at substantially subsidized prices, far below market cost, to farmers in the region? The most fundamental unaddressed issue is whether the short-term gain made by subsidizing irrigation farmers in a desert region, [End Page 108] via an infrastructure that harnesses a waterway to the exclusion of other uses, outweighs the long-term consequences. Seventy-five years after the fact of its existence, remarkably few people spend effort, energy, or scholarship seriously assessing the full implications of the largest reclamation project in America, even as politicians and federal agencies gather to discuss expanding the Columbia Basin Project.

Gina Bloodworth and James White
Central Washington University
Gina Bloodworth

Gina Bloodworth is an Oklahoma native and an assistant professor at Central Washington University. Her academic interest is water resources, particularly allocation issues, water policy, and water law. Extensive travel to places where there are very few environmental laws, and even fewer law abiders, fuels her concern about environmental laws and the intersection of human-nature interactions.

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