Some Columbia Basin farmers soon will be able to use Columbia River water to irrigate crops on 80,000 acres, instead of rapidly declining groundwater.
Federal, state and local officials met Thursday with farmers near the East Low Canal to mark several milestones in the lengthy, complicated process of fulfilling promises made to Odessa Subarea farmers.
Switching to surface water is vital to save irrigated agriculture worth about $200 million annually and about 4,500 jobs, said Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology.
Bellon delivered a secondary use permit that will allow the federal Bureau of Reclamation to bring 164,000 acre-feet of Columbia River water to 70,000 acres of Odessa Subarea farmland through the East Low Canal. The bureau already had a 1938 water right to store the water in Lake Roosevelt.
Another 10,000 acres will receive water thanks to a contract Lorri Lee, the bureau's Pacific Northwest Regional Director, and Don Osborn, East Columbia Basin Irrigation District president, signed Thursday. The contract will allow the district to deliver 30,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Roosevelt using the East Low Canal and the Weber Siphon.
That siphon, finished in 2011, solved a bottleneck at Interstate 90, allowing more water to be delivered to farmland south of the interstate.
Officials are still working on the criteria that will be used to determine who will receive the new water, said Stephanie Utter, the bureau's Ephrata field office manager.
Warden farmer Eli Wollman is among those who have been hoping and waiting for canal water.
Wollman, who farms potatoes, mint, beans, peas, wheat, onions and sweet corn, has been watching his groundwater wells drop about 10 feet in a single year.
"That water right is so important," Wollman said.
Deep wells are expensive and it takes a lot of power -- 600 horsepower for 1,500 gallons a minute -- to pump water to the surface. And as the levels drop, the alkaline and sodium levels climb, he said.
"We have the best ground in the world for growing potatoes," said Wollman, who started growing spuds in 1967.
For the farmers just east of the East Low Canal, surface water has been a long time coming. Groundwater never was supposed to be a long-term irrigation water source for those farmers in Adams, Grant, Franklin and Lincoln counties.
The Bureau of Reclamation had planned to build a second canal -- dubbed the East High Canal -- which would have served these farmers in the unfinished portion of the Columbia Basin Project.
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, Bellon said.
Some of the new water -- the 30,000 acre-feet from the contract signed Thursday -- might be watering crops as soon as this year.
Wendy Christensen, the bureau's Yakima office technical projects program manager, said it might be delivered to irrigators north of I-90 who already have the necessary pumps. That will decrease what those farmers draw from the aquifer.
It's a day Alice Parker said she was told she would never see in her lifetime. On Thursday, the Columbia Basin Development League board of trustees member said she was glad to prove all the naysayers wrong.
Parker, the league's former executive secretary, recalls how plans got shelved when the bureau put a moratorium on Columbia River water in 1993. That moratorium wasn't lifted until about 10 years later.
But Parker, who owns a farm near Royal City, said she knew something had to happen. Otherwise, the impact to the Adams County tax base would be devastating. Even for crops that could be grown dryland, yields would drop, she said.
As Parker and others celebrated Thursday's news, excavators nearby were removing dirt and rubble from the sides of the East Low Canal as part of a $31 million state-funded project to widen the canal south of I-90 so more farmland can receive river water.
"We are here to celebrate moving dirt and moving water," said Derek Sandison, director of Ecology's Office of Columbia River.
Craig Simpson, East Columbia Basin District secretary/
manager, said they are still working on getting enough funding to finish the needed canal improvements. Construction is ongoing on widening the first 13 miles south of I-90. And widening will start later this year on the next 31 miles.
"There is still a substantial amount of work to be done," he said.
A contract will need to be negotiated between the bureau and the irrigation district, Christensen said.
The pumps and pipelines to deliver the water from the East Low Canal to farms also still need to be funded and built.
Sandison said there are two efforts to address that need.
The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association is proposing a privately built system where the landowners involved would get their own loans to pay for their portions of the project.
And the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District is working on an effort to build the connections, which would be paid for using assessments from the landowners who benefit, said Mike Schwisow, a lobbyist for the Washington State Water Resources Association.
In all, eight pipelines are planned to connect some farms in Adams, Grant and Lincoln counties to the canal. The project was outlined in an environmental impact statement approved almost a year ago.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com