Pasco Basin Groundwater Issue Moves Ahead Following 2021 Legislative Session

Pasco Basin Groundwater Issue Moves Ahead Following 2021 Legislative Session

The 2021 Washington Legislative Session was like none other. Adapting to COVID-19 public health mandate it became the first session to be conducted virtually.  Legislative majority leaders, anticipating a greatly slowed process, advised members to limit bill introductions and indicated bills addressing social equity, COVID-19 pandemic response, economic recovery and the global climate crisis would be given priority, and that held true.

While majority Democrats worked to pass elements of their broad policy agenda, CBDL stayed focused on issues related specifically to the Columbia Basin Project (CBP). Progress was finally able to be made on the Pasco Basin ground water issue. Budgets were written this session and sections of both the Operating and Capital Budget had implications for the CBP.

The Pasco Basin, long known as the 508-14 area, is the southern portion of the CBP area. Ecology’s predecessor, the Department of Conservation in 1967 adopted administrative rules, WAC 508-14, establishing a ground water management area covering the entire Columbia Basin Project area. The rules under the authority of the Ground Water Code, RCW 90.44 provided for the management of naturally occurring and artificially stored ground water in the region resulting from CBP operations.

Subsequently, two portions of the region, the Quincy and Odessa subareas were carved off the whole leaving the Pasco Basin. This was done to allow better management of those areas related to their specific characteristics. We know these areas have quite different ground water characteristics. The Quincy Basin has areas with readily accessible shallow ground water resulting from CBP operations while the Odessa subarea aquifer is in serious decline.

Reclamation claimed the shallow ground water in the Quincy Basin and jointly establish with Ecology a permitting program allowing access to the Reclamation water. Today over 47,000 acres of farmland is irrigated and over 11,000 ac/ft of water is supplied to food processors and other municipal and industrial water users. Revenue from this water use go to help all Project water users pay to draw water from the Columbia River for the Project service area.

The situation in the Pasco Basin never evolved in the same manner. Representative Mark Schoesler in 2002 recognized the untapped potential and passed a bill that set out legislative finding and intent. The bill recognized the effect that 50 years of region wide irrigation had on ground water resources and directed Ecology to work to develop the resource much like what had been done in the Quincy Basin.

Much work needed to be done to get there. Ground water management requires that hydrogeologic studies be done to characterize the aquifers. It is necessary to differentiate natural occurring ground water from water that exists because of Project operations. The natural water is a State resource subject to management and permitting by Ecology. Reclamation ground water, while still managed by Ecology under the Ground Water Code, remains a property interest of Reclamation. Another issue to be addressed were certain provisions of the Ground Water Code enacted by the Legislature in 1945 before water deliveries had begun in the CBP. The effects of annual irrigation of what has grown to 1,000 square miles on ground waters in the region was not anticipated.

Slowly over the years impetus to move the issue forward has grown as the demand for new water resources continues to grow. The US Geological Survey was finally contracted to perform the necessary ground water studies and issued their findings in 2016. Reclamation and Ecology continued the discussion on the project but always came back the to the need to amend the current code. Just before the 2021 Session they agreed on language to move the issue forward. Senator Perry Dozier, along with Senator Mark Schoesler introduced SB 5230 amending the Columbia Basin Project Act to allow agreements for the allocation of ground water that exist because of the Columbia Basin Project fulfill the requirements of the Groundwater Code for determinations of the availability of public groundwater.

The bill also provides that Ecology will conduct rulemaking to establish a new ground water management area in the portion of the Project that is now the old WAC 508-14. This will allow the creation of a new permitting program that will make new Reclamation ground water available in the region. Ecology and Reclamation are ready to proceed to develop the rules and program guidelines and take them through the formal rule making process.

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