Surface water may be the closest it ever has been for some Columbia Basin farmers who have been watching their groundwater slip away.
The state Department of Ecology has water rights in hand for some of the farmers in what is known as the Odessa Subarea to move off wells and onto water from the nearby East Low Canal, east of Moses Lake.
Planning is under way to build irrigation systems that would connect some of the farms in Adams, Grant and Lincoln counties to the canal. Some water could flow within two years.
The state Legislature recently set aside $32 million for canal improvements meant to add to capacity, allowing more farmers south of Interstate 90 to access canal water without harming current users.
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.
The federal 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.
But that canal never was built, and officials say it may never be.
Congress has shown no interest in paying for "mega" irrigation projects like the dreamed-of East High Canal, said state Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. State government and farmers would have to foot the costs.
"Now it's a problem that has to be solved," he said.
Digging deeper and deeper
Aquifer levels have continued to decline, causing farmers to dig deeper and deeper wells.
Officials estimate 75 percent of wells serving 140,000 acres in the Odessa Subarea will be unusable within seven years, said Darryll Olsen, the board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.
The deepest well that Olsen knows of already reaches 2,500 feet. And that doesn't pump much water, serving only a couple of irrigation pivots.
Irrigated agriculture is a huge driver to the economy, Schoesler said. Dryland wheat farming always has been marginal in the Odessa Subarea.
The region would risk losing two food processors and other agricultural-related companies if aquifer irrigation were to end, Schoesler said. Farmland worth up to $10,000 an acre would be worth about $400 an acre as dryland.
"We face a threat to our municipal water supplies, domestic wells of our farmers and nonfarmers that live outside of the incorporated cities," he said.
Farmers who switch to canal water may actually be able to use more water than they currently can, Olsen said. They are limited by what they can pump, and that has confined them to certain crops -- potatoes, sweet corn, field corn, peas, alfalfa and grass seed.
A cooperative plan
Just this April, an environmental impact statement formally was approved to provide replacement water for about 70,000 acres of groundwater-irrigated land.
The proposed project includes eight pipelines connected to the canal with main pumps.
Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association has focused its planning efforts on two pipelines that would be north of I-90. Landowners would self-fund construction of pipelines serving their properties using private loans, Olsen said.
The northernmost pipeline -- system 1 -- would serve farmers in Grant, Adams and Lincoln counties. It would connect to the East Low Canal north of Rocky Coulee Wasteway.
The other pipeline north of I-90 -- system 2 -- mostly would serve Adams County farmers. It would connect to the canal north of Weber Coulee Wasteway.
The pipeline system north of Rocky Coulee could cost up to $140 million to build if all landowners decide to participate, Olsen said. It would be closer to $80 million if landowners farther from the canal decide the project is too expensive. A meeting is scheduled for July 9 to determine the final tally.
Landowners also will need to put in their own systems, at their own expense, to connect to the shared pipeline.
The request would need final approval by Ecology, the Bureau of Reclamation and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District.
While the private sector will build the system, the goal is to turn the delivery system over to the irrigation district after construction is complete, Olsen said.
He's hopeful that construction could start on system 1 by March of next year. It would take up to eight months for the pipelines, main pumps and booster pumps to be complete.
The East Columbia Basin Irrigation District hasn't seen the proposal yet, said Craig Simpson, the district's secretary/manager.
At this point, the district is leaving open all funding options, including district revenue bonds, a local improvement district or private financing from landowners, he said.
"We are moving forward with implementation of the plan and trying to get water out to those folks as soon as possible," Simpson said.
Ecology has 30,000 acre-feet of water set aside for Odessa, and another 6,000 acre-feet is available thanks to conservation projects, said Derek Sandison, director of Ecology's Office of Columbia River. It will be available once the bureau and East Columbia Basin Irrigation District sign a service contract.
Ecology already has received an application from the bureau for about 186,000 acre-feet of water, Sandison said. A decision is expected later this month, and will be followed by a 30-day comment period before being finalized.
In the meantime, the $32 million from the state for the canal improvements will make it possible for the three pipelines south of Rocky Coulee and north of Lind Coulee Wasteway to be built, as long as funding is found for them.
The state money will pay for widening the canal, expanding siphons and building a new gate at Lind Coulee, Sandison said.
While those three pipelines could not be used until the canal improvements are complete, construction could begin during the two years it will take to widen the canal, he said.
The goal is for canal widening to begin in October, once water is out of the canals, Sandison said. The intent is for the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District to lead the project.
The canal improvements and water supply make it viable to connect more farmland to the East Low Canal, Schoesler said.
Further canal improvements up to the Scooteney Wasteway would need to be made before the rest of the pipelines proposed in the environmental impact statement could be used, Sandison said. Those improvements are not part of the $32 million.
There are other wells in the Odessa Subarea that are not in Columbia Basin Project boundaries, and will not receive water from the current project, Sandison said. But he said officials believe they will hit the greatest concentration of wells.
The sooner some of the groundwater wells are offline, the sooner it's possible for the rate of decline to decrease, Olsen said.
"They are losing their water out there," he said. "The tables are going down."
w Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com