With groundwater supplies in dire straits, Columbia Basin communities mobilize together to preserve their future

Disparate groups unite to advocate for sustainable water resources their mid-Columbia communities need to survive.

Longtime residents of Columbia Basin farming communities in Lincoln, Franklin, Adams and Grant counties understand deeply that water is precious. They’re in the heart of central Washington’s rich agriculture region that feeds not only our state, but the world, with wheat, potatoes and many other staple crops.

For generations, much of their water has come from ancient underground aquifers in a geologically complex and isolated natural system that is no longer capable of sufficiently replenishing itself. A 2012 Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area Report confirmed the dire prognosis — the water is running out.

Lincoln County, WA is at the heart of efforts by local residents and community leaders who have formed the Columbia Basin Sustainable Water Coalition, supported by the Lincoln County Conservation District. They are tackling a decades-old trend of dwindling groundwater and charting a secure future for this important agriculture region.

Many here have counted on completion of ambitious federal water infrastructure projects, some dating back to construction of the Grand Coulee Dam during President Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure.

The Columbia Basin Project, for example, started in 1943 and promised to connect growers to plentiful water from the Columbia River, greatly reducing reliance on wells that tap what is now dangerously depleted groundwater. However, critical elements of the project were never completed, such as the East High Canal which would deliver water to these communities.

Local jurisdictions continue to struggle to fill the gap, leaving wells still in use — or worse, drying up — that were meant to be retired years ago. Some projects moved forward over the years and continue, such as the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program, and ongoing work and funding through the Department of Ecology Office of the Columbia River.

But an economically viable and sustainable solution for preserving water resources here remains debated and elusive — and far more critical than ever to the future of local families and farms.

A diagram from the US Geological Service showing the massive depth of ancient aquifers in the Columbia Plateau, illustrating how deep wells must go to find water.
Drilling ever deeper to find water in the ancient Columbia Plateau aquifer layers: the Grand Ronde is the most extensive of the three major formations, with over 85% of the total volume of the Columbia River Basalt Group, reaching depths up to 8,000 feet below sea level. This illustrates how deep area water purveyors must place wells to access precious groundwater.

Groundwater levels have been declining for decades and now impact almost all local water wells that draw on the Grande Ronde, the primary underground formation in the area. It is critically important that water systems have a reliable water source. Lowering the extremely deep wells is too expensive for most, and is not a sustainable solution.

For example, the town of Lind is watching their water level drop by five feet a year and has lowered the pump in their well twice to keep up with the decline.

“We are in survival mode.”

Even if these wells could tap into deep groundwater, it could cost millions more dollars to treat remaining water for drinking and other uses.

It’s why local communities are in “survival mode,” according to Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Stedman.

Stedman is one of six steering committee members of the newly formed Columbia Basin Sustainable Water Coalition, a broad stakeholder group whose vision is to protect and maintain a water supply for present and future generations of the Columbia Basin through local and regional action.

Stedman notes a perception and false sense of security that water is bountiful and a never ending resource in the Columbia Basin. Many different groups share the concern, but often with a singular focus.

The idea for the Columbia Basin Sustainable Water Coalition germinated over the last couple of years from an education and outreach effort led by Ben Serr, Eastern Washington Regional Manager for Commerce’s Growth Management Services, in partnership with the agency’s Small Communities Initiative, and ongoing outreach work by the Washington State Department of Health.

“The goal of our work was to galvanize the community around highlighting the issue and addressing it,” said Serr.

“I have a deep appreciation for how hard working people are in small rural towns — they show up for their community in ways that urban folks can’t understand,” said Claire Miller, part of Commerce’s Small Communities Initiative team providing technical assistance to the coalition and partners in the area.

All the parties are clear-eyed about the problem. Stedman explained: “It’s not a lack of understanding, but residents in tiny communities wear lots of hats,” he said. He proudly acknowledges these people who labor daily to fulfill multiple responsibilities and obligations to their families, businesses and neighbors, and then voluntarily step up to serve the additional, hefty charge of the new coalition.

“At the end of the day, there isn’t always the financial or organizational capacity remaining to come up with solutions for a challenge of this magnitude,” Stedman said. They need some help taking it on.

The Lincoln County Conservation District successfully applied for a two-year $100,000 federal Watersmart grant from the Bureau of Reclamation, giving the coalition means to legally establish and begin work in earnest.

“It’s a very exciting time, bringing local voices to the table to advocate for water resource monitoring and conservation,” Serr said. “This work will formalize the coalition, the mission and the work plan.”

The formalized coalition will allow the parties to build on their prior work and advance it. Ultimately, they hope to deliver a watershed management plan which may include a regional groundwater monitoring network.

Sustained monitoring is vital

“When the wells run dry, it’s too late,” said Serr

The issue is capacity. Over a hundred small drinking water purveyors lack the time and technical know-how themselves, plus a shortage of experienced, full-time operators further complicates the problem.

In the near term, the coalition expects to focus on building knowledge, tools and capability to do professional water level monitoring, as well as plugging into funding when it becomes available and advocating for themselves.

Photograph of wheat field and harvester
Photograph of wheat field and harvester
This year’s wheat harvest on land farmed by the Warden Hutterian Brethren was down 40%.

The time is right. Small farmers are hurting,” said steering committee member Paul Wollman, one of the area’s small water purveyors. Wollman leads the Warden Hutterian Brethren community of 36 families that farm thousands of acres, noting that this year’s wheat crop was down 40% due to drought and a late frost.

He believes one of the coalition’s biggest challenges to preserving livelihoods here is educating the broader public to build support for significant public infrastructure funding. His message is “save our groundwater” and also get the surface water (from the river) through more canal and irrigation projects.

Commerce’s team will focus on supporting the Lincoln County Conservation District as they seek additional funding, including another Watersmart grant that will support monitoring, among other critical needs.

The path forward is multi-faceted, with many players, competing interests and solutions likely to persist from the past and spring up new along the way.

“Ideally this work will make use of all of the resources available,” Miller said.

Helping build infrastructure is the key for small rural communities to have a sustainable future.

Long-term, the coalition’s work may complement and provide mutual benefit with other regional efforts such as the Moses Lake Watershed Council and the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program.

Commerce will stay the course, providing ongoing technical assistance and coordination as needed in support of the steering committee and community members.

One thing is certain: the spirit and energy of the coalition members and their community partners here in Washington’s idyllic Columbia Basin will see them through.

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