Plan to irrigate Odessa appears to be a winner

January 20, 2012 

We have to admire the tenacity of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

The group is a constant reminder to lawmakers in Olympia about the importance of a long-term strategy for continued irrigation water for thousands of acres in Eastern Washington.

More importantly, the irrigators don't just whine about the situation -- they actually come up with solutions.

Up to 140,000 acres of land could be without irrigation water in the next 10 years unless governments get involved. To that end, the irrigators have asked the Legislature to approve $250 million in revenue bonds to bring surface water from the East-Low Canal near Moses Lake to agricultural lands now using water from deep aquifers in the Odessa subarea.

As most of us know, the water level in the aquifers in that area are dropping, creating concern for the future. Predictions have 70 percent of the wells in the Odessa out of commission in the next few years because there's no water or it's just too deep to reach or the cost of punching a well to the necessary depth is prohibitive.

The revenue bonds seem like a win-win solution. Yes, money is tight for our state right now. But these bonds would be paid back over 20 years by the private landowners receiving the benefit of the water. And the project would have a fairly quick turnaround time, with estimates that it could be completed by 2015 if construction is started next year.

Besides getting a stable supply of water to about 75,000 acres of endangered farmland, the project would have the side benefit of taking some of the demand off the troubled aquifers, likely extending the life of wells in the Odessa subarea.

All this water drama would have been avoided if the second half of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia Basin Project had been completed as planned.

The first phase of the project, which included the East-Low Canal, was built in the '50s and '60s, bringing much needed water from the Columbia River to 671,000 acres of dry farmland in Eastern Washington.

But that only equals about 65 percent of the land originally intended to be irrigated by the project, leaving the remaining portion in dry land production or dependent on wells.

In the long term, the bureau is considering conveying irrigation water to about 45,000 acres in the Odessa subarea in about five years. The cost would be $1 billion -- yes, with a "b" -- and require modifications to the East-Low Canal to bring the water where it's needed. But the sluggish economy could stall those plans indefinitely.

That uncertainty surrounding the bureau's plans is another reason why the irrigators' plan is so appealing.

Farmers feed the world, and that's a lot harder to do without water. Irrigation has made the Columbia Basin a premier agricultural region.

We can't afford for any irrigated farmland to go dry, especially when farmers can offer a reasonable alternative.

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