Irrigated farmland puts $1.9B in pockets of Tri-Citians

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldOctober 8, 2012 

Irrigated farmland in Benton and Franklin counties brings $1.9 billion into the pockets of people tied to the agricultural industry each year.

That is the value that water adds to agriculture production, services and processing in the Tri-City area, according to a recent report by Pacific Northwest Project, a Kennewick consulting firm specializing in water, energy and natural resources.

The 42 million irrigated acres in the western United States are worth about $128 billion in income each year, said the report commissioned by the Family Farm Alliance.

The report was recently presented to members of the Office of Water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance executive director, said the agency wanted to show specific impacts on the importance of water to the nation.

The alliance, which represents farmers and ranchers in 17 western states, wanted to make sure that the value of irrigation was included in decisions, such as when agencies make rules that businesses including farms must follow.

"People take food for granted," he said.

When government agencies start making policy decisions and court decisions are made, the value of irrigated farmland needs to be part of what is considered, Keppen said.

In some areas, including Klamath Falls, Ore., where Keppen lives, water has been diverted from irrigation to help fish survive. That's had a horrible effect on the local economy, he said.

There would be few crops in Eastern Washington without irrigation, agreed Darryll Olsen, with the Pacific Northwest Project.

About 95 percent of the state's irrigated acreage is in Eastern Washington, said Olsen, who is also the board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

Benton and Franklin counties have about 570,000 irrigated acres. And each acre is worth $3,250 in household income, from the crop itself to processing, Olsen said.

Washington has about 1.7 million irrigated acres, tied to about $9.9 billion in income each year to agricultural industry workers and others who provide services to the industry, according to the report.

Annual rainfall in Eastern Washington isn't enough to sustain row crops, potatoes, apples or carrots, Olsen said.

"Our wine production wouldn't look very good," he said.

In the Midwest, farmers face the possibility of drought every year, Keppen said. But in the Western U.S., irrigation gives farmers certainty.

"We've got a reliable water supply that supplies ultimately cheap food," he said.

Having irrigated acreage contributes to the nation's relatively low food cost, Olsen said.

Americans spend almost 7 percent of their disposable income on food now. That percentage has dropped from a maximum of about 25 percent during the Great Depression.

If food costs go up by 1 percent to 2 percent, that money is taken out of the general economy, he said. That kind of shift could slow the nation's ability to move out of the recession, he said.

Irrigated agriculture is a tool to try to keep up with an increasing worldwide food demand, Keppen said.

Olsen said they would like farmers to be able to add irrigated acres without having a measurable negative environmental impact. That's possible in places such as along the main stem of the Columbia and Snake rivers, he said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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