Our Voice Surface water for Odessa confirms agriculture's economic importance

March 18, 2014 

Spring is almost upon us.

And in this region that means fruit tree buds are swelling, farm equipment is churning through fields and the ag industry is coming to life. Before we know it, canals will be filled with water, and we'll be surrounded by fields of green.

The farming picture hasn't been so rosy for some of our neighbors to the north who have long depended on the Odessa Aquifer to sustain their crops.

But with the dawn of spring comes some very welcome news: Some of those farmers will now be able to use water from the mighty Columbia River to irrigate their crops instead of depending on a rapidly diminishing groundwater supply.

Government officials from local to federal gathered to celebrate several achievements for the farmers recently.

The state Department of Ecology actually recognized that a switch to surface water was critical to saving irrigated ag lands producing about $200 million each year, along with 4,500 jobs.

Irrigation and water rights come with a complicated web of laws, rules and regulations.

Suffice to say that a permit will now allow 164,000 acre-feet of Columbia River water to flow to 70,000 acres of farmland through the East Low Canal, bringing an assured source of water to the Odessa Subarea farms.

An additional 10,000 acres of will also get water courtesy of a new contract between the Bureau of Reclamation and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, bringing water through a siphon completed a couple of years ago to remove a bottleneck at Interstate 90. Now farms south of the freeway will be able to access more water.

Prior to these long-time-coming but recent developments, farmers had to rely on wells to irrigate their fields. And as the water supply dried up, the wells had to reach deeper into the ground, costing more money along the way.

These farms were always supposed to get irrigation water under the Columbia Basin Project, but their portion of the vast waterways and systems that serve so many others has remained unfinished for decades. A canal called the East High Canal would have been the mechanism for water, but was never built.

The farmers have not been sitting idly by waiting for someone to save them. The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators have proposed a private system funded by land owners. And the irrigation district is working on a plan to construct the necessary connections, funded from assessments on the landowners who benefit.

A $31 million state-funded project is under way to widen the East Low Canal south of I-90 to further expand the amount of water that can flow to farms there.

Battles over irrigation water can drag on for years. These farms were supposed to be served but the federal government decided not to finish the project.

It's nice to see so many levels of government recognize the importance of agriculture to our region's economic well-being and work to find solutions that will keep crops growing for decades to come.

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