Friday, March 14, 2014

Columbia River water users worry they may be high and dry

Agencies convene to find water supply solutions behind Wanapum Dam

By Brook Beeler, communication manager, Eastern Region

More than 100 people filled a Wenatchee meeting room Thursday night (March 13) seeking information on what impact the drawdown at Wanapum Dam will have on their water supplies. The Columbia River system has been lowered in response to a crack in the dam near Vantage and upstream water users – both irrigators and well users - are worried.

The meeting, hosted by Chelan PUD and the Washington State Horticulture Association, brought local and state officials together to address concerns and identify potential solutions.

Growers and irrigators expressed relief as state and local officials assured the crowd they were working cooperatively and as efficiently as possible to find solutions.

Cooperation and partnership

Chelan PUD General Manager Steve Wright opened the meeting with the statement, “It has been an intense two weeks, but I can assure you that the response by our partners both locally and at the state level has been remarkable.”

With more than six state agencies, four counties, and two different public utilities involved, the public could easily see the complexity. Officials quickly assured folks that they were working together to identify and reduce bottlenecks in order to get safe and secure water supplies online to those affected.

“We are working as fast as we possibly can,” said Ecology’s Central Office Regional Director Tom Tebb, when asked about timing. He said the agency is working at the problem from both ends to identify the affected population.

“Once details and data are gathered, we will be better prepared to work through the permitting requirements for safety, in-water work, fish screening, cultural resource protection, and legal water use,” said Tebb.

What is at risk

For fruit growers, Department of Agriculture Director Bud Hover highlighted that thousands of acres of high value crops are grown along this stretch of the Columbia River, including Kittitas, Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties. According to Hover cherries bring in $15,500 per acre and apples average about $12,500.

But farmers aren’t the only population impacted. Two individuals from the crowd said their household water supply has been affected. People who lose household water may have to rely on temporary solutions such as bottled water for drinking or trucking in water supplies during the drawdown. In some cases, a more permanent solution would be to make sure pumps are fully penetrating an aquifer or wells deepened to avoid water shortages.

Defining the scope of affected water users

It was made clear that the more information state and local officials have on individual problems, the quicker solutions can be found. They encouraged those affected to provide details on their intakes and water supply infrastructure.

Actions that irrigators can take that may not require any permits are outlined on Ecology’s webpage, including details and best practices from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Agencies aren’t sitting back and waiting for information to flow in before troubleshooting ways to get the ball rolling.“No one is letting the grass grow on this problem,” said meeting facilitator Bruce Grim, Executive Director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.

By gathering details on the type of water supply infrastructure, location, purpose of use and in the case of pipes and pumps – photos -- officials think they can possibly get a simplified permit to cover any necessary work.

Identify and report impacts

Wanapum Dam owner, Grant PUD, is already working with Ecology to ensure that the 11 orchard irrigators with land-use authorizations for surface-water withdrawals from the Wanapum reservoir have information and technical assistance they need to prepare for the upcoming irrigation season. Irrigators affected by the reservoir drawdown have been contacted individually by Grant PUD.

Chelan PUD will be conducting a test for water users on the Rock Island pool from 1-4 p.m. on March 22 and 23. Dam operators expect to operate at a stable level. They are asking irrigators to test their pumps that day to gain an accurate count of who is affected. Detailed information is available on their webpage.

Any water user may call Ecology’s water resources customer service representatives if they anticipate a problem with their surface water intake or groundwater wells. This will help narrow the inventory of potential problems as Ecology explores approaches to remedy water supply concerns.

Customer service phone lines: Chelan, Douglas, and Kittitas counties call 509-575-2490; Grant county call 509-329-3400

For detailed and up to date information visit our website: Wanapum Dam structural damage could affect water supply.

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