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Pilot Project Tests Feasibility Of Using Columbia River Water For Umatilla Basin Aquifer Recharge
Posted on Friday, April 29, 2011 (PST)

Over a two week period in early April, water from the Columbia River was pumped 10 miles south through existing pipes and irrigation infrastructure to a shallow man-made pond – the first stage of an aquifer recharge project in the arid farming land of eastern Oregon.


If enhanced, the recharge project could do a number of things:

-- restore groundwater aquifers;

-- provide certainty for irrigators in the lower Umatilla River Basin;

--restore springs and water quality in the lower Umatilla River;

-- free up water for the uses of industrial, irrigation and domestic development on the Umatilla Indian Reservation;

-- and augment stream flow in the lower Umatilla River to support migrating fish.


The project, considered a model of cooperation between the region’s stakeholders – Indians, farmers, local and state government entities – would be one more step in optimizing the region’s water supplies for irrigation and aid in restoring salmon that migrate up and down the Umatilla River, and would further advance negotiations toward a federal water rights settlement for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.


The project involves diverting water south from the Columbia River during winter months when water is available to recharge a large shallow alluvial aquifer which was formed during the great Missoula Floods. Wells in the alluvial aquifer will allow continuous pumping of the stored water throughout the year. The pumped water can go directly to farms during the growing season and provide for additional storage in basalt aquifers during winter. The project is also designed to improve the quality of underground aquifers and the Umatilla River, by a process called “return flows” which happens when the water table is high enough that cold groundwater seeps back into the Umatilla River (springs).


Approximately three-fourths of the imported Columbia River water is to be used to satisfy unmet irrigation groundwater rights in the basin. The remaining quarter is intended to provide flow augmentation to the perennially low Umatilla River summer flows to enhance fisheries resources, replenish over-drafted basalt aquifers, and improve groundwater and surface water quality. Finally, the project will test if some of the water can be used to recharge the deep basalt aquifers, which have declined considerably in both the upper and lower Umatilla basin and are very difficult to recover naturally. Carbon dating shows that water in some basalt aquifers has been underground as long as 20,000 years before being pumped.


The project was a test to determine if recharging the aquifer with Columbia River water was feasible, and to indicate to the Oregon Legislature that its 2008 decision (SB 1069) to invest $750,000 in the study two years ago will pay off. 


The aquifer recharge project could have a significant impact on a federal water rights settlement in negotiations between the state of Oregon, the federal government, the basin’s stakeholders and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.  Recharge water from the aquifer could be used by irrigators with lower-river water rights who would then leave water in the Umatilla River for migrating fish and free up flows upstream for use by the Umatilla Tribes.


“Diverting flows from the Columbia River during winter months would provide underground storage for irrigators and give the Tribes flexibility in working toward our settlement,” said John Barkley, a member of the Umatilla Tribes’ Water Commission. “The goal is to bring some finality to water issues, certainty year in and year out for multiple beneficial uses.”


J.R. Cook is executive director for the Umatilla Basin Water Commission, which consists of representatives from the Umatilla Tribes (Rosenda Shippentower), Umatilla County (Commissioner Dennis Doherty), Morrow County (Commissioner Leann Rea), and Westland Irrigation District (Mike Wick). The Umatilla Basin Water Commission oversaw the study, design and development of the project.


Cook said the project for years has been called the “replacement water scenario, whereby we replace lower Umatilla basin water needs previously met with groundwater and Umatilla River water with available Columbia River water.  This is truly a multi-beneficial project designed to add critical water supplies to meet our irrigation and other consumptive demands in the Umatilla Basin, while benefitting the environment, and improving stream flows and stream temperature for fish.  We have always felt that this effort was very complimentary to the settlement efforts of the CTUIR and could potentially add recharge as another tool in the tool chest for use in the settlement.”


Barkley and Cook were among a group of five men representing the project designers, irrigators and the Confederated Tribes who listened April 12 to the whoosh of 5,000 gallons per minute that had been pumped nine miles from a point near the Port of Morrow through an existing pipeline owned by the Boardman Tree Farm. The water was then flushed another mile through a buried PVC pipe 24-inches in diameter to a pond created with dirt berms pushed into place by volunteer farmers. Water rushing through the pipe makes a 90-degree turn when it reaches a 10-foot diameter culvert full of rock, then percolates up to the surface of the pond where it quickly is absorbed into the ground and eventually into the aquifer.


“It goes down as fast as it goes in,” said Fred Ziari from IRZ Consulting LLC in Hermiston, which designed the aquifer recharge project. “We estimate it takes about eight hours to get through the sand and gravel to the groundwater.”


Once in full operation, the Umatilla Basin Aquifer Recovery Project could provide up to 100,000 acre feet (32.6 billion gallons) of water in an aquifer stretching across 15,000 acres, making it the largest such underground recharge reservoir in the Pacific Northwest.


Diversion from the Columbia River for this Stage I pilot project lasted from April 2-14 when the winter pumping period from the river ended. After that date, water is left in the Columbia River for migrating fish. The project was on a tight timeline and Cook didn’t know if the infrastructure would be ready before the deadline.


“From land acquisition to construction and operation it took three weeks,” said Cook. “It was a multiple-year process of collaboration, negotiation, engineering and design, that culminated in a three-week project to recharge the basin with up to 11,000 gallons a minute of Columbia River water,” Cook said. “If you’d asked me six months ago if we’d have water underground I’d say it’s not likely this year. Two months ago the effort really started moving. It is water through a pipe into a recharge basin with a relatively small footprint compared to a surface storage reservoir. So simple but the simplicity is the huge marvel here.”


The project proves that, Ziari said, recharging the aquifer is a more efficient and much less costly method of storing water than an above ground reservoir. An earlier plan called for construction of an above-ground reservoir at Sand Hollow that would have cost tens of millions of dollars. Construction of the aquifer recharge project has so far cost a fraction of that – less than $300,000.


If all goes according to plan and Stage II starts next fall, water will be filling a huge aquifer shaped like a whale.


Ziari said the aquifer recharge project using Columbia River water will be a model not only in Oregon and the United States, but throughout the world.


“I believe it is a model for 21st Century water development,” Ziari said. “We should be talking about this in a global sense. Much of the world looks like eastern Oregon – an arid, desert environment. We should be trying to find ways to produce more agriculture with less water.”


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