As much as 140,000 acres of farmland in the Mid-Columbia may go dry in less than a decade unless the state and federal governments take action, irrigation advocates said.
Officials from the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association trekked to Olympia this week to plead with the Legislature to approve $250 million in revenue bonds to extend surface water from the East-Low Canal east of Moses Lake to farm land currently drawing water from deep aquifers in which water levels are dropping.
"This is easily the most significant water issue the state can deal with in 2012," Darryll Olsen, the association's board representative, told the Herald.
Olsen said pumping in about 70 percent of the wells in what is known as the Odessa subarea will cease in the next seven years either because there's no water, the water is too deep to access, or it becomes to costly to access.
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That will leave tens of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland with no water, and farmers either taking the land out of production or attempting to convert to dry land farming, he said.
"This is a real-time problem that needs to be addressed by the state," Olsen said.
The solution Olsen suggested to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in Olympia on Wednesday is for the state to front $250 million to extend surface water from the East-Low Canal to about 75,000 acres east of Moses Lake and north of Interstate 90.
The Odessa Subarea encompasses land in east Grant County, west Adams County, north Franklin County and a sliver of Lincoln County that was supposed to be irrigated in the second half of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia Basin Project.
The East-Low Canal was built as part of the project, which brought water from the Columbia River to 671,000 acres of arid farm land in Eastern Washington mostly in the '50s and '60s, according to the Bureau of Reclamation website.
But that is only about 65 percent of the land originally planned to be irrigated, and much of the remaining land has drawn water from wells while waiting decades for the project to be finished, Olsen said.
The problem is that water levels in the basalt Grande Ronde and Wanapum aquifers that provide ground water to much of Southeast Washington are declining, and farmers are having to go deeper and deeper to get water for their crops.
And farmers aren't the only ones relying on the aquifers. Towns such as Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, also draw water from the aquifers for their municipal water supplies, including drinking water.
Olsen said the tens of thousands of acres in the Odessa Subarea weren't meant to continue getting their water from the aquifers for the decades since work on the Columbia Basin project halted.
In fact, they have surface water rights codified into statute in anticipation of those farms eventually getting irrigation water from the Columbia River.
But the water never came, and now those farms are struggling to find water to survive, Olsen said.
Olsen said the Bureau of Reclamation is looking at bringing water to about 45,000 acres in the Odessa subarea south of I-90, but not until at least 2017, and at an estimated $1 billion cost to modify and retrofit the East-Low Canal to serve those acres.
"That is a long time to wait," he said.
And he isn't optimistic about the chances of the bureau getting the money for construction in the current economy.
But there is something that can be done now for 75,000 acres north of I-90 where the canal doesn't need retrofitting, he said.
If the Legislature will use revenue bonds to pay the $250 million cost to bring water to those acres -- money that would be repaid to the state by the private landowners over 20 years -- construction could start in 2013 and be done by 2015.
Getting Columbia River water to those acres would take some pressure off the aquifers, and the hope is the life of wells in other parts of the Odessa subarea could be extended until the Bureau of Reclamation could extend irrigation to the 45,000 acres south of I-90, Olsen said.
Building the north portion of the project would have the added benefit of creating as many as 1,800 jobs, he said.