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That dam economy again?

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Sarah Gilman | Dec 19, 2008 05:15 PM

There may be no direct connection, but it's hard not to speculate that the dismal state of the economy (and the massive sums the government has spent to shore it back up again) played a role in the feds' decision this week to kill a reservoir proposed for Washington state's fertile Yakima Valley.

In 2003, Congress ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to look into building the Black Rock Reservoir, a 10-mile-long lake in a dry valley about 20 miles east of Yakima, to slake the booming Valley's thirst.

To some, it may have seemed that a new dam era had begun--one of smaller scale projects with more environmental packaging. As High Country News reported this past September:

. . . (With most big reservoir building opportunities taken and a slew of new environmental regulations in effect), new dam proposals tend to demonstrate an environmental sensitivity that was seldom seen in last century's water planners. Off-channel dams and reservoirs, though not a new engineering feat, have become increasingly common among water proposals in recent years. They are built in dry canyons or valleys, instead of on the main course of a river.

At Black Rock,

 The off-channel construction would neither block fish passage on the Yakima nor inundate biologically rich riparian habitat and floodplains. According to University of Montana river ecologist Jack Stanford, the basin offers one of the Northwest's best opportunities for salmon restoration. The increased flows could support     1 million salmon in a river system where only about 3,000 now survive.

But given the cost of these projects, HCN reported, it seemed that the new dam era could be doomed from the outset.

Indeed, now, after five years and $18 million worth of studies, the AP reports, BuRec is nixing the project and two other proposed reservoirs in the area:

. . .the bureau determined that all three projects would be too expensive and fail to meet all of the criteria necessary for major federal water resource projects, said Gerald Kelso, manager of the bureau's Upper Columbia Area Office in Yakima.

"We are committed to working in collaboration with others to look for long-range solutions to future water supply needs in the Yakima basin," Kelso said in a statement.

The financial benefits of the project were always shaky at best, but they had gotten even more dismal, AP reports:

The project's cost was estimated at about $5.69 billion, but potentially as high as $7.7 billion. The impact statement also showed Black Rock would return just 13 cents for every dollar spent to build and operate it, down from 16 cents (projected in a draft environmental impact statement) earlier this year.

It will be interesting to see whether any other expensive diversion and storage projects, say, Glade Reservoir in Colorado or the Lake Powell Pipeline in Utah, will fold in the shadow of the faltering economy.

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