New eastern Washington dams don’t pencil out

On November 25, CELP responded with cautious optimism to the WSU economic draft analysis of new controversial dams and other projects proposed in the Yakima Basin.  The WSU review was done at the request of state legislators concerned about the $5 billion cost for the Yakima Plan for a state struggling with budgets. Today the WSU economists released their draft report for public comment, and are scheduled to submit their final report to the Legislature on December 15.

“The take-home message is that new dams in eastern Washington are money losers,” said Rachael Osborn of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy.  “This is old news:  for over 30 years studies have concluded that new storage projects don’t pay.”

The Yakima Project, jointly led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Dept of Ecology, is a collection of project proposals that include new irrigation dams, aquifer recharge, and fish passage at existing dams, and habitat restoration.  Of the proposed projects studied, only projects tied to restoring salmon showed a positive economic benefit.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates five irrigation dams in the Yakima Basin, and efforts are underway to help salmon get past the federal dams.

The report also concluded that development of water markets and water right trading could benefit the basin and offset the impacts of curtailments during drought years.

The WSU draft economic analysis for the Yakima Plan contains the following six points:

  1. The major storage projects of the Yakima Plan, when implemented together, are unlikely to provide positive net benefits.
  2. Net benefits for individual water storage projects are negative, with some exceptions under the most adverse climate and water market conditions.
  3. Instream flow benefits for fish are insufficient to support water storage infrastructure given the net benefit shortfall in out-of- stream use benefits, but proposed instream flows may be supportable through market purchases.
  4. Insufficient evidence exists to assess the economic efficacy of fish habitat restoration with a useful degree of precision.
  5. Reservoir fish passage projects are likely to provide positive net benefits through their pivotal role in supporting wild Sockeye reintroduction into the basin.
  6. Water markets show potential for reducing the impacts of basin-wide curtailment

The findings in the WSU Yakima Economics Analysis repeat a pattern starting in the early 1980s when economists and others have investigated new dams and water projects proposed in eastern Washington.  Taxpayers and ratepayers would pay for most of the cost, rather than irrigators who reap the benefits.  Starting in 2007, the Legislature has spent at least $200 million funding the Dept of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River to study proposals for new dams.   All proposals have failed economic tests, and no new dams have been built.

Eastern Washington is one of the most heavily dammed regions on earth.  Water projects for irrigators are paid for mostly by taxpayers and electric utility ratepayers rather than the irrigators who benefit.  When water scarcity occurs, CELP continues to encourage Washington State officials to implement conservation, improved water efficiencies, water markets, metering, and other affordable tools rather than costly and controversial new water projects.

“The water frontier is over,” said Osborn.   “We cannot dam our way out of water scarcity.”

Comments on the draft economic analysis can be submitted to Dr. Jonathon Yoder, yoder@wsu.edu

Links on economics, new water projects in eastern Washington –