1971 WSU Study

Long Run Costs and Policy Implications of

Adjusting to a Declining Water Supply

in Eastern Washington

Water Research Center

Washington State University


(to read the study in full, click here)





Washington state justified its decision to allow mining of Odessa Aquifers based on a 1971 study conducted by the WSU Water Research Center. 

The WSU study recommended that, if mining of the deep basalt aquifers was to be authorized, it should be done at a controlled rate of no more than 20 feet per year. This rate of decline would (1) ensure that water levels would remain accessible for 35 years, (2) provide adequate economic returns to area farmers based on their investments in irrigation equipment, and (3) prevent premature obsolescence of wells. 

Table: The 1971 WSU study  hypothesized varying depths of aquifer depletion.

The WSU study predicted, fairly accurately, that in approximately 30 years groundwater levels would fall to the point that the costs of pumping would exceed the benefits of increased crop yields.

Table:  1971 WSU study summarized annual pumping costs at alternative rates of water level decline. The more rapid the aquifer depletion, the greater the annual costs.

As groundwater levels have declined, a crisis mentality has engulfed the Odessa Subarea.  While the problem has been a long time predicted and in the making, Odessa area irrigators have only recently succeeded in bringing much attention to their water problems.  (see, for example, Columbia Basin Water InitiativePotato Grower, Washington Business).  

The Columbia Basin Development League has seized on the Odessa Aquifer problem as justification to build the “second half” of the CBP.  The CBDL reportedly is putting significant resources into lobbying in D.C. to achieve its goals.

Table & Graphs: 1971 WSU study predicting power costs per acre foot on the basis of pump lift and quantity pumped. Power costs were considered to be a linear function of pump lift.

In response to this pressure, the Governor and other elected officials have promised “to do something” about the problems created by mining the Odessa Aquifers.  (See, for example, Gov. Gregoire, Sen. Mark Schoesler)  Despite promises, however, there are no easy answers.  See “Solutions” section of this report. 

As the following excerpts from press releases indicate, state politicians appear to have little understanding of the physical and legal limitations associated with water solutions in the Odessa Subarea.


House Passes Legislation Providing Temporary Relief to Odessa Aquifer Water Users

In March 2006, the Washington State Legislature enacted SSB 6151, which tolls the five year relinquishment period for nonuse of water rights. SSB 6151 stops the “use-it-or-lose-it” clock for purposes of conservation, irrigation or water use efficiency, long- or short-term changes in the rotation or types of crops grown, economic hardship, pumping or infrastructure costs, unavailability or unsuitability of water, and willing and documented participation in efforts to reduce aquifer depletion.

A water right holder choosing not to exercise a right under this bill must notify the Dept. of Ecology in writing within 180 days of making that choice. This bill, coupled with the recent Columbia River water management legislation (SHB 2860), begin the process of providing relief to those dependent upon water from the Odessa sub-area. Gov. Gregoire has indicated she will sign this bill into law.  (source: Association of Washington Business, March 6, 2006)

“Gov. Gregoire recognizes the tremendous economic contributions these farms make to the state, and is committed to doing her share to correct this problem,” explained Ecology Director Jay Manning. “With that in mind, she has given us the go-ahead to work with the Bureau of Reclamation, Columbia Basin Project Irrigation Districts and the Columbia Basin Development League to find ways to continue providing an affordable supply of water to farmers while improving the health of the aquifer.”  (source: News Release, Sept. 21, 2005)

What we have here is a bill that will provide water from the Columbia River in a manner that benefits our economy and our environment. It is a plan that supports a billion-dollar agricultural industry and growing cities and towns. It will implement solutions for the declining Odessa aquifer and those who rely on it for their livelihoods. It will end the economic chaos caused when water rights are interrupted in low-flow years.  (source: Governor’s statement, Signing of Columbia River Water Management Legislation, Feb. 16, 2006)


Study excerpts:

The Washington State Department of Ecology has the responsibility for issuing permits to drill wells for the withdrawal and use of groundwater in the state.” (foreword)

“[I]n many cases, withdrawals exceed recharge with the result that water levels decline and pumping depths and costs increase.  Early developers object because their costs are increased as a result, at least in part, of the action of others.  Eventually the aquifer may be exhausted or the pumping depth become so great that it is no longer economically feasible to withdraw water.” (p.1)

Instances of groundwater mining are now beginning to occur in Washington and with them have come some of the characteristic problems of recedence of static water levels and consequent increase in pumping depths and costs.” (p. 1)

“[A]n economy that is growing on the basis of groundwater mining may face painful decline if and when withdrawal is no longer economically feasible.” (p. 2)

The current concern about groundwater problems is by no means the first attention given the topic in the state of Washington. The statutes of the state of Washington contain provisions regarding groundwater. Most important to these deliberations are the sections dealing with the regulations of withdrawals.  The statutes provide that “No permit shall be granted for the develop or withdrawal of public ground waters beyond the capacity of the underground bed or formation in the given basin, district, or locality to yield such water within a reasonable or feasible pumping lift in a case of pumping developments, or within a reasonable of feasible reduction of pressure in the case of artesian developments. (90.44.070)” (pp. 2-3)

“[T]he Ritzville-Odessa area of eastern Washington was used as a typical area for testing the concepts involved. This area was selected because critical groundwater problems already exist here and because much information of the necessary type was already available. … The Ritzville-Odessa area is in the eastern Columbia Basin area of east-central Washington. The area has an average annual precipitation of about 10 inches.  Most of the area is farmed by dryland methods, following a wheat/summer fallow regime.” (pp. 4-5)

Since 1963, there has been a large and rapid increase in irrigation in the area using practices associated with groundwater pumped from deep wells.  In the 5 years from 1963 to 1967, pumpage increases nearly four-fold in the Odessa-Lind portion of the model area.  The rapid and widespread increase in pumpage has caused accelerated and alarming groundwater level declines in many parts of the area.  This, in turn, has prompted the State’s water management agency to close a large part of the area to further appropriation while an intensive study can be made of the whole problem.” (p. 5)

It now appears, however, that surface water importation is physically possible but economically marginal at this time and not likely in less than two decades.  Even if surface water is imported it is likely that a demand for groundwater will remain.   ... [I]n this area, it does not appear that groundwater irrigation developments will have either the ability to pay for the imported water or the capability of inducing the location in the area of industry having that ability.” (pp. 90-91)

In the Columbia Basin basalt aquifers recharge is generally believed to be virtually nonexistent.” (p. 99)

The results of this study indicate substantial gains may be realized from irrigation, even though the water may be obtained by groundwater mining.  Even in an area where development had not already occurred, the apparent opportunity for sizeable economic gain would make “no development” highly unpopular.  On the other hand the arguments for absolute preservation have merit.  For one, there is no evidence to indicate that use of the water for irrigation is benefiting society members.  There is no shortage of wheat, potatoes, beans, peas, or any of the commodities being produced with the water in question.  Production of these crops in the study area merely displaces production in other regions of the state or outside the state.  It would b easy to show that all of the production resulting from irrigation in the study area could be produced elsewhere without exploiting a scarce stock resource.  Exploitation is occurring simply because the present cost and policy structure makes it slightly more profitable to produce the crop with mined groundwater reserves.”  (p.99)

The results show that substantial net return can be realized by irrigation of currently dry-farmed lands in the Odessa-Ritzville area.  Costs of water, at current pumping depths (200-500 feet) are not prohibitively high for intensive cropping with high value crops, such as potatoes, or for judicious supplemental irrigation on dryland wheat.  Eventually, if pumping depths reach 700-1,000 feet (depending on crops produced and type of farm) irrigation would be unprofitable.” (p.104)

A second concept of control seeks to regulate withdrawals so that the decline of the aquifer does not exceed a specified rate per year.  Alternatively, regulation may be imposed to assure an economic life of the aquifer of a least some specified number of years.  This approach may be combined with a determination of economic pumping lift to define the depth at which the aquifer will have no further economic value.  The rate or period of time should be chosen so as to permit full amortization of sunk investments.” (pp. 105-106)


 Odessa Summary Points
  The Odessa Aquifers
  Columbia Basin Project
  1971 WSU Study
  Cascading Wells
  Impacts on Crab Creek
  Odessa Economics


Columbia Institute for Water Policy