Agriculture is one of the most important contributors to our local economy.
We support our farmers and ag-related industries in almost every endeavor.
But our state Department of Natural Resources did the right thing in moving to build a new irrigation system on 4,000 acres of land it manages in the Horse Heaven Hills. It’s unfortunate that some farmers lost their leases on the land as a result, but the DNR is charged with making sure lands in the state school trust earn top dollar for its beneficiaries.
Irrigated land is much more valuable than dry land, and the state stands to make hundreds of dollars an acre on the improved farm land instead of “tens of dollars per acre,” according the agency.
Back when Washington received statehood in 1889, the U.S. Congress granted our state millions of acres in order to support public schools and prisons. The land under DNR’s purview now totals 3 million acres. It is charged with providing a constant stream of income for K-12 schools, state universities and other public institutions.
In order to keep the money flowing the state harvests timber, leases land for farming and grazing and leases land for mining and minerals, wind farms and communication towers among other revenue-generating activities.
As you’re aware, our state’s finances have been in a bind for a few years and funding basic education is now a challenge being decided by the state Supreme Court. Our state lawmakers are scrambling for ways to meet the court’s order.
So we can imagine that the DNR is being asked to maximize its contributions to the school trust. The 45,000 acres it manages in irrigated farmland provided about $21 million to the trust last year. And increasing the value of land it already manages seems like a prudent move.
The situation in the Horse Heaven Hills wasn’t handled as well as it could have been, as is the case often with communication between farmers and state government. They speak different languages.
Some of the former tenants said they weren’t given enough notice. The state said the plans had been in the works for three years, but even acknowledged the agency could have done a better job communicating with the tenants.
Farmers plan well in advance and new ground is not so easy to come by. Losing significant acreage is a hardship for sure.
But much of the land was not being actively farmed. It was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, in which farmers are paid to plant or preserve native vegetation.
Because of that limited activity, the land can be more easily certified organic by future tenants, adding more value.
Another factor that played into the decision was that a large water right granted to the land in the 1970s was set to expire in 2019 if it wasn’t used. That water right is valued at $50 million.
The $10 million to $12 million irrigation project will go out to bid next year and we’re sure prospective tenants will be lining up to sign leases. The state is doing right by the land it manages and the schools it supports.