Grand Coulee As Possible Watering Source

By Tom Bacon

A couple of retired WSU agricultural economists are giving state lawmakers a short course in the basic economics of a plan to sprinkle the arid central Washington region with water from Grand Coulee dam.

Washingtonlegislators are mulling whether to go ahead with a plan to approve a joint federal-state study to irrigate about 70-thousand acres in eastern and central Washington. Transporting surface water from the Columbia to the Odessa sub-area would replace agricultural water which has been drawn up for years from a now-disappearing aquifer.

But the former WSU economists have told lawmakers that the study is fatally flawed.

For one thing, Norman Whittlesey and Walter Butcher said the 825-million dollar surface water project would cost about 12-thousand dollars an acre. But even with irrigation, they said, the land would be worth only about 4-thousand dollars an acre.

Additionally, the retired professors debunked an assumption in the study that dryland wheat farming is, and will continue to be, a money-losing proposition. They pointed out that such farms have been operated successfully in the central plains for the past century. In other words, farmers can make a living without bringing in expensive water from the Columbia River.

Perhaps most tellingly for state lawmakers, Whittlesey and Butcher warned that most of the enormous cost of the plan would be borne by Washington State taxpayers, since the federal government could not take part because the costs would outweigh the benefits.
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