Irrigation district mulling revenue bonds to pay to bring Columbia River water to Odessa Subarea

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMay 4, 2014 

New Columbia River water is available to Columbia Basin farmers who pump from rapidly declining groundwater wells.

However, there's no system yet to bring the water to most of those farmers, and it won't be ready until at least 2016.

The East Columbia Basin Irrigation District is looking into revenue bonds to pay for pipelines and pumps needed to carry the water from the East Low Canal to Odessa Subarea farmers.

Irrigators would pay the cost through rates and charges, said Craig Simpson, the irrigation district's secretary/manager.

But Darryll Olsen, board representative for Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, says that's just not going to work.

"We just reached the conclusion that it was going to be extremely difficult to do this through a revenue bonding," Olsen said.

Instead, Olsen, who was hired by some of the irrigators for planning and now to oversee construction of the first main pipeline north of I-90, said farmers want to use private financing so that they only pay for the costs to get the system to their properties. It also expedites the project, he added.

The first system would serve about 14,000 acres, and is estimated to cost about $48.3 million, according to the irrigators association.

Simpson said the irrigation district is not going to rule out having landowners front the money.

Either way, the farmers themselves will need to pay for and install systems to connect to the main pipeline so that they can use the water.

For the farmers just east of the East Low Canal, surface water has been a long time coming. Those farmers in Adams, Grant, Franklin and Lincoln counties were supposed to receive surface water from a second Columbia Basin Project canal, but the federal Bureau of Reclamation never built it.

In the meantime, aquifer levels have continued to decline, causing farmers to dig deeper and more expensive wells. The aquifer has declined by about 200 feet during the past 30 years, according to state officials.

In March, the state Department of Ecology provided the Bureau of Reclamation with a secondary use permit so the Bureau can deliver 164,000 acre-feet of Columbia River water to 70,000 acres of Odessa Subarea farmland through the East Low Canal.

Another 10,000 acres will receive water thanks to a contract the bureau and irrigation district president signed to deliver 30,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Roosevelt using the East Low Canal and the Weber Siphon.

To be eligible, the land must be within current boundaries of the Columbia Basin project, within the Reclamation service area and have been irrigated under state groundwater permits, said Derek Sandison, director of Ecology's Office of Columbia River.

Olsen has been working with irrigators to confirm their ground water rights with Ecology records and match them to the new surface water rights.

"We think we are pretty close," he said.

Landowners who already have contracts with the irrigation district and have pumping stations to transport the water will be the first to use the new water, Simpson said. He expects to have some of the first contracts finished this year.

"I'd like to move a lot quicker also but it's a federal process and it does not move as quickly as any of us would like," Simpson said.

Contracts between landowners and the irrigation district still need to be resolved. Whether it's private financing or revenue bonds, those agreements are necessary for delivery of the new water.

Simpson said he's concerned the plan put together by the irrigators association may not mesh with the irrigation district's efforts.

"Those landowners, they haven't applied with us, and our board is going to have to go through this whole criteria issue," Simpson said.

The irrigation district is still determining which landowners are eligible for the new water, he said.

Olsen said if construction engineering doesn't start this summer on the first system, then the irrigators will lose a full year because of the tight window of time when construction can occur without impacting farming. Even then, the first system wouldn't be ready to turn on until 2016.

In the meantime, construction is ongoing to widen the East Low Canal south of I-90 so more farmland can receive river water. It's being paid for using a $31 million allocation from the state.

Sandison said he's hopeful the current funding for canal widening can be stretched to get the East Low Canal widened down to Connell. Five siphons are needed between I-90 and Connell, and it's possible the expansion of the siphon at Lind Coulee and a second siphon can be installed.

That would make it possible for two pipelines north of I-90 and two south of I-90 but north of Lind Coulee to be built, Sandison said. A little more than half of the eligible land would be served by those pipelines.

"Our intent is to make it a manageable project in terms of cost and time necessary to construct," Sandison said.

That would leave three siphons and some bridge work to pay for, he said. About $15 or $20 million may be needed in the future to finish the project, he said.

"There is plenty of water, what there isn't plenty of is money," Olsen said.

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

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