The state’s plan to build a new irrigation system on about 4,000 acres of trust land in Horse Heaven Hills will raise more money for the school trust, but it’s unwelcome news for the wheat farmers who, until recently, leased the land.
The state Department of Natural Resources moved to cancel the leases this summer because it is seeking bids to build an 8-mile pipeline to deliver irrigation water from the Columbia River to the property, raising the value of the land and the income it can provide the state trust, said Rick Roeder, the agency’s assistant division manager for agriculture and water.
“Rather than making tens of dollars per acre, if we put this in place, we’ll make hundreds of dollars on those acres,” Roeder said, adding that the leases contain a clause allowing the state to cancel if it can find a higher value use for the land.
But two of the four former tenants told Wheat Life magazine that the DNR didn’t give them enough notice that it planned to cancel their leases and that losing the ability to farm the land will cause economic hardship. Neither returned calls from the Herald-Republic.
Roeder said the irrigation project has been in the works for about three years and the farmers were told, but he added that the communication with them could have been better.
The water right is valued at about $50 million, and the irrigation system to deliver it is expected to cost about $10 million to $12 million.
Most of the leased land wasn’t actually planted with wheat, however. Roeder said that most of the land was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to plant or protect native vegetation to provide environmental benefits.
Because most of the land was not being farmed in recent years, it can become certified organic more easily by the new tenant. And when the DNR told the farmers it was canceling their leases, it asked them not to do any further spraying as well.
The planned irrigation project seeks to capitalize on a large water right for the property dating to the 1970s that’s never been developed, Roeder said. The state needs to put that 17,000 acre-feet of water to use before its legal claim to the water is relinquished in 2019.
The water right is valued at about $50 million, Roeder said, and the irrigation system to deliver it is expected to cost about $10 million to $12 million.
Early next year, the state plans to put the project — the rights to construct the pipeline and a new lease for the land — out for bids, Roeder said.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from everything that you see on the Horse Heaven Hills: row crops, potatoes, onions, carrots; you can do tree fruit; berries; and some folks think there might be potential for wine grapes on part of the property,” he said.
Across the state, the DNR manages about1 million acres of trust land that’s leased for farming or grazing, including about 45,000 acres of irrigated farmland. Last year, these lands provided $21 million to the state trust.