Irrigation Leader
Interview,  Washington State

Improving Water Supply in the Columbia River Basin

Tom Tebb is the director of the Office of Columbia River at the Washington State Department of Ecology. His office is tasked with several major water management projects designed to increase water flows in central and eastern Washington, both for instream and out-of-stream uses.

In this interview with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly, Mr. Tebb discusses flow augmentation, aquifer restoration, and other infrastructure improvements his office is responsible for.

Kris Polly: Would you tell us about your background and how you ended up in your current position?

Tom Tebb: I have a degree in engineering geology and a license in the same profession from the State of Washington. I have been working for the Washington State Department of Ecology for 27 years and worked my way up through the ranks in five different environmental programs. I started my career in 1992, working in the nuclear-waste program at the Hanford Site. Most recently, in 2015, I was promoted from Department of Ecology central regional director to director of the Office of Columbia River.

The Office of Columbia River is charged with running a relatively new program called the Columbia River Water Management Program, which was created in 2006 by bipartisan legislation. The program is designed to aggressively pursue water supplies to meet multiple water needs in eastern Washington, both instream and out of stream. A $200 million bond authority allowed the Office of Columbia River to begin working on projects: Since 2006, we’ve worked on close to 100. In developing new water supply, one-third of any new water developed is dedicated to fish and other aquatic ecological functions; the remaining two-thirds is for out-of-stream uses, including municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses.

One of the key priorities of that bipartisan legislation was to develop water supplies in the Odessa Subarea of the Columbia Basin. Farmers in that area had tapped into the groundwater with the permission of the State of Washington, essentially on the promise that the second half of the Columbia Basin Project would be built and allow them to turn off their groundwater wells. Thirty years later, approximately 100,000 acres are in jeopardy due to severely declining groundwater levels and the threatened failure of these wells. We are working on a project called the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program to provide surface water from the Columbia River to replace the groundwater used by those farmers. In developing that water supply, we also created 27,000 acre-feet of additional instream flow for fish in the Columbia River main stem.

We accomplished that through the Lake Roosevelt Incremental Release Program, which allowed us to take an additional foot off Lake Roosevelt during normal years and a foot and a half during drought years. That provided water for the Odessa subarea and for instream flow for fish, as well as an additional 25,000 acre-feet of water for municipal and industrial uses. Since 2006, the various projects of the Office of Columbia River have created about 413,000 acre-feet of additional supply for eastern-central Washington. We are very proud of this accomplishment, but believe we have much more to do.

We’re looking at new ways of doing water supply and watershed-improvement projects, which are epitomized in our Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. Our strategy there is to advance seven key elements: habitat conservation and fish passage, water supply, water conservation, groundwater use, structural modifications, new storage, and the development of water markets. Individually, those projects probably wouldn’t move, but as an integrated resource strategy, they’re having success. We have received national and international recognition for this integrated water-resource management approach. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation presented the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan to an audience in Brazil during the recent World Water Forum held there. I’ve also presented it to the United Kingdom Irrigation Association in London. We’re very proud of it and we continue to work hard at it.

In total, it’s a 30-year, $4.1 billion program. Right now, we are in the first of three 10-year phases. In 2013, the State of Washington adopted the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan and provided $134 million to jump-start it. We have received generous state investments totaling about $167 million since then. The governor’s budget that was just released provides several million dollars of additional funding to the end of the 2019–2021 biennial budget. At the same time, we’re working hard to get a federal partner. There is proposed federal legislation that would achieve Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and House Resolution Bill 4419 out of the office of Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA). We’ve been working with the members and staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to streamline the House version for an amendment and to try to reduce the potential for earmarks. We’ve been very busy the last 3–4 weeks working to get something in the omnibus bill. We are hoping for a Christmas miracle!

In addition, we are still continuing to work on a federal partnership in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project to support the $90 million that Washington State has invested into the expansion of the East Low Canal and the construction of the Weber Canal, the Lind Coulee Siphon complex, and the Warden Siphon complex. We have also recently received funding to complete the last two siphons on the East Low Canal—the Kansas Prairie 1 and 2 siphons—and the associated radial gates. That will form the backbone of the groundwater replacement program.

The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan and the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program within the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project are the key projects that take up the bulk of our state funding, and rightly so: They’re federal infrastructure projects that the state is investing in because of their substantial economic, social and ecological benefits.

Kris Polly: For your office, are groundwater management and surface-water management completely integrated?

Tom Tebb: Not completely, but we have a legislative mandate to do a water supply-and-demand forecast every 5 years, and our most recent report, which was published in 2016, identified 10 or 11 geological areas within eastern-central Washington where we’re having groundwater declines. We’re trying to think through how to manage that, keeping in mind prior appropriation and the interruption of surface water and groundwater rights. In Washington State, surface water is regulated through laws developed in 1917, while groundwater laws were not developed until 1945. As a result, groundwater rights are typically junior as compared to surface water rights, but they aren’t always regulated as such. In the Yakima Basin, we’re trying to manage surface water and groundwater conjunctively. Elsewhere in eastern and central Washington, we’re working toward it. It takes time.

Kris Polly: You discussed developing new water supplies. Where does that water come from?

Tom Tebb: It’s not really new water—there’s no such thing as new water. We are trying to retime the water that exists. We invest in infrastructure where we can. For example, there was a reservoir on Lake Sullivan in Pend Oreille County, in the very northeast corner of Washington State. It was a small hydropower project associated with Seattle City Light. Seattle City Light was getting ready to relinquish its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license and discussing the removal of the dam. We were able to get involved, and with some creative thinking and additional funding, we were able to renovate this structure so that it could continue to store 14,000 acre-feet of water. We’ve been able to use that water for towns and communities that are at their water-right limits in the five northeast counties of our state. As part of the project, we also did environmental restoration for the creek below the structure.

Similarly, the Lake Roosevelt Incremental Release Project involves adjusting the lake level to provide additional supply. We are also considering the construction of new reservoirs. We are scoping for a potential project called the Switzler Reservoir in the Horse Heaven Hills area of eastern Benton County. The idea is to take water off the Columbia River when it’s flooding or flowing high, store that water, and then release it later in the summer, potentially for new permits. We are also looking at aquifer storage as a mechanism to retime water with a smaller environmental footprint than traditional surface water storage.

We also invest in water conservation. Much of the infrastructure here is dated. Modernizing it would make it more efficient. We use public money to improve water conveyance infrastructure and delivery systems; in exchange, we use a portion of the water that is conserved to augment instream flow or to shore up water supply for irrigation districts.

Kris Polly: What are your methods for recharging the aquifer?

Tom Tebb: In the Odessa subarea, we’re not really recharging the aquifer. Right now we have major agricultural groundwater users pulling over 900,000 acre-feet of water a year out of the aquifer. We want to slow the decline of the aquifer by getting these big groundwater pumpers to use replacement surface water instead. Because it is a regional aquifer that serves many towns and communities and homes, it’s imperative that we look at this initiative as an aquifer rescue program. Once we get those big users off the groundwater, we can look for ways to protect that water and, hopefully, someday to recharge it. This groundwater dates back to the Ice Ages, so there is no easy way to replace it other than to pump it in, which is expensive.

However, we’re looking to pair a project like that with a pump storage project, which would involve a multifunction, multiuse facility that could take advantage of fluctuating energy prices and cheap power. We would like to use the fluctuations in hourly energy prices to pump water up from the river and potentially into an aquifer when power rates are low and to release it when power rates are high.

Kris Polly: Would you tell us about the Bateman Island project?

Tom Tebb: That project is associated with our Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. Bateman Island is an island at the mouth of the Yakima River that was farmed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. A causeway was created to get equipment over there—essentially an earthen dike that connects the shoreline of the City of Richland to the island. There is no known permit for the causeway, and it blocks one of the passages of the Yakima River Delta as it empties into the Columbia, creating a temperature as well as a flow impediment. We’ve been working with Kennewick Irrigation District (KID), the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, the City of Richland, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and local marina owners to begin developing a strategy and plan to try to reduce that barrier while still guaranteeing access to the island and protecting the marina. We’re going to be embarking on the first level of feasibility analyses and then move on to the funding strategy and subsequent implementation. The Army Corps owns this island and much of the shoreline around the McNary Pool as a result of the construction of the McNary Dam. The Army Corps has just adopted what is called a tier-one step, allowing them to begin work on this project, which is very exciting.

Kris Polly: Would you talk about urbanization in your area of service and its effects?

Tom Tebb: Many of the irrigation districts in our area were formed in the early to mid-1900s, primarily for agricultural purposes. The Yakima Irrigation Project and the Columbia Basin Project are both federal irrigation projects authorized by Congress through the Reclamation Act. The Yakima Irrigation Project, which was developed sooner, was essentially designed with snowpack in mind. Snowpack is a component of our water supply, but as the climate warms and we get more rain and less snow, that source is less and less reliable. An irrigation system whose rights are junior or proratable—meaning that the Bureau of Reclamation provides it a prorata of its normal water supplies during drought years—may receive half or less of the amount of water it would usually get. That really affects high-value crops like cherries and other fruits.

Urbanization has had several effects, particularly in the case of the Kennewick Irrigation District. Urbanization in KID’s service area has placed more demands on its system in unpredictable ways. We definitely need more customers to be knowledgeable about their water supply and where it comes from. People in the Tri-Cities live right next to the Columbia River, but in many cases, their water comes from the Yakima River system, which is much more susceptible to drought. There is an incongruity between what residents see out their windows and the actual origin of their water.

Urbanization also creates opportunities. For example, KID was able to provide surface water irrigation to the Red Mountain wine-growing region because of the construction of the Columbia Center Mall in the 1960s. This area was once irrigated orchards but is now urbanized. The water that had been used there was moved to Red Mountain.

Kris Polly: What role does water conservation play in your work?

Tom Tebb: It is important. We’ve been working with irrigation districts in the Yakima and Columbia Basin Projects and other Office of Columbia River projects to modernize their equipment and conveyance systems. In some cases, we provide public money in exchange for the saved water. These projects benefit both the irrigation district and the environment.

Kris Polly: What should irrigators know about your work?

Tom Tebb: They should know that we’re working hard both for them and for the environment. It is natural for farmers to be somewhat suspicious of the Department of Ecology: We are a regulatory agency, and one of our missions is to manage the state’s water resources. But the Office of Columbia River is also a place where irrigation districts can come in and talk about their ideas and dreams. If they are willing to consider environmental and other social benefits, we can partner with those districts to further our mission of developing new water supplies for instream and out-of-stream uses. I encourage districts to get a hold of us. We are easy to contact and to talk with. I participate in many irrigation district conferences. We also have quarterly public meetings. I invite anyone to come to those. Get involved and see if we can be helpful.

Kris Polly: Would you tell us about your problem-solving philosophy?

Tom Tebb: That is what makes us unique. It is easy to say, “No.” It is harder to say, “Maybe, yes, but we have to do these things.” What I try to do, and what I coach my staff to do, is to think of these problems as opportunities, and to ask how we can use our current infrastructure and water law to address them.

In this office, I have the opportunity to solve problems that in some cases have been tied up in litigation for years. A good example is what we’re trying to do in the Icicle Creek area of the Wenatchee watershed. We are working with the Chelan County Natural Resources Department and a group of stakeholders to try to replicate what we did with the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. That little watershed is important because in it is the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, which is reparations for Grand Coulee Dam. It also is home to an important tribal fishery area as well as important degraded instream flow areas. Working with the Icicle Peshastin Irrigation District, we’re trying to develop a strategy to invest in their infrastructure in exchange for water for instream-flow purposes. If people come to the table with open minds and some creativity, we can develop a strategy to put that basin or community in a sustainable posture for the next 20–30 years.

Kris Polly: What is your vision for the future?

Tom Tebb: My vision for the future is to grow our capacity here and to reach out to other basins. We’ve been asked to participate in the Walla Walla Basin and to try to provide an example of how government can provide creative solutions to water supply issues. My vision is also for Washington State to be a leader in this effort. I’m proud of the momentum we have built to date and what we’re trying to do. I’d like to continue that.

I feel very privileged to do this work. I’m a native of eastern Washington, and I grew up on the ditch bank of a canal. I value agriculture and our natural environment. We are blessed to call Washington State home.

Tom Tebb is the director of the Office of Columbia River at the Washington State Department of Ecology. He can be contacted at (509) 574-3989 or at thomas.tebb@ecy.wa.gov.