Our voice: Government should support farmers' plan for private funding in Odessa

September 24, 2013 

The Bureau of Reclamation had grand plans to bring water to the arid farmlands of Eastern Washington, with discussions for a project starting as early as 1904.

Congress authorized the bureau to bring irrigation water to more than 1 million acres in Grant, Adams, Franklin, Lincoln and Douglas counties. The Columbia Basin Project began with the allocation of money for Grand Coulee Dam as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.

The first parts of the irrigation system were developed in the '50s and '60s, with plans for 70 years of incremental developments. And while some additional portions were completed in subsequent decades, a couple of major developments were not. In the end, water was delivered to about 65 percent of the land originally intended for service, or about 671,000 acres.

That left some farmers who had long planned to be served by irrigation to instead depend on groundwater, most notably in the Odessa Subarea. Farmers there were allowed to put in wells in the 1970s as a temporary solution, anticipating they would eventually be served by construction of the planned East High Canal.

But that canal never came to be, and farmers in the unfinished portion of the Columbia Basin Project have continued to pump groundwater decades longer than anticipated, causing a severe decline in the area's aquifer and concern over the water supply for domestic and commercial operations.

Now, 13 land owners have asked the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District to supply water to 13,700 acres in the Odessa Subarea. The farmers want to build an eight-mile system with private funding. It would connect to the East Low Canal outside of Moses Lake.

We give the farmers credit for finally giving up on the idea that the federal government will complete the Columbia Basin Project and taking matters into their own hands. The farmers are working with the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators to plan the project and say they are ready to build the first pipeline to serve farmers in Grant, Adams and Lincoln counties. A second pipeline would serve Adams County farms. Six others are planned as well.

But it still will take the government's cooperation to get it done. The state Department of Ecology, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District all have to agree to the project.

The hope is that if the farmers pay for the $45 million pipelines, the irrigation district will operate them. That would require a water service contract. But the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District has some questions, and it can't authorize a contract without federal approval.

District officials said there needs to be a determination on which farmers are indeed eligible to receive water from the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. The Department of Ecology is involved in that process. And the district has some plans of its own to deliver water to eligible lands.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators say their plans are a complement to the irrigation district's efforts, but the farmers' plans are about two years ahead of those of the district. With an urgent need for a reliable source of water, time is of the essence.

The farmers' pipelines are a private sector project that can be built now, not delayed by more years of bureaucracy. The irrigators hope that all parties will agree and a contact could be in place in two months. The farmers can't obtain loans and lock in interest rates until the service is guaranteed.

The government entities that need to approve the project should be grateful to the farmers and the private investors willing to finally bring irrigation in the Odessa Subarea.

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