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Columbia Basin farmers hopeful irrigation program will stretch water resources

By: Carleen Johnson, The Center Square

May 2, 2024


(The Center Square) – Farmers in the central and eastern portions of Washington state are hoping recent developments related to the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program will mean the eventual completion of canal systems to supply water from the Grand Coulee Dam.

In the meantime, farmers have been relying on deep wells they've been given permission to drill as a temporary measure.


The Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program is a regional effort building infrastructure for farmers to exchange groundwater rights for promised Columbia Basin Project water.

Part of region’s irrigation water is supplied by canal systems from Grand Coulee Dam, thanks to a massive project that was begun last century to attract farmers into the area and make desert land productive.


“The Columbia Basin Restoration Project was authorized by Congress in the '30s and then reauthorized in the '40s,” Sara Higgins, executive director for the Columbia Basin Development League, explained. “It started with construction of the Grand Coulee Dam and canals and pumping facilities from the dam all the way down to Pasco. It’s over a million acres in central-eastern Washington, and today about 700,000 acres are developed."

Another 358,000 acres exist within the project area, but the farmers and communities in the areas are relying on wells that are running dry.


They can’t wait for completion of the Columbia Basin Project, Higgins said, as that would risk wells drying up completely, threatening the survival of farms and surrounding communities.


“Farmers back in the '60s and '70s realized they wouldn’t be seeing ‘project’ water for some time, so they appealed to the Department of Ecology to drill temporary deep wells to start irrigating now, and then when the project reaches them, they could switch over to project water," she explained. “What we didn’t know at the time is we were drilling into an aquifer that would not recharge, so today we have a situation where not only farmers, but multiple municipalities, are experiencing their wells going dry.”


Drilling deeper and deeper increases the chances of getting poor quality water, Higgins said.

“It’s hot water," she said. "It contains a lot of minerals and has to be treated before it can be consumed, and that’s very expensive. So now we have a substantial economic crisis on our hands.”


That's where the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program comes in. 

“OGWRP is intended to build out the East Low Canal in a way that reaches those farmers east of the canal for those areas that are still waiting for project water," Higgins said. “We are addressing an emergency."


The project is no small task.


“It’s a huge undertaking," Higgins noted. "The widening of the canal is complete, and now we’re building out a series of laterals with one pump station complete to date, and it is serving landowners with surface water. And we’ve got several more to go.”


The project is not cheap.


“It’s estimated that the remaining work is about a $400 million project," Higgins said. "Plus another $100 million for on-farm infrastructure."


This year's supplemental state capital budget included $5.5 million in funding for a pipeline project within the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program.

“To date, the state of Washington has contributed in excess of $160 million," Higgins said, "so the state is 100% in this and supportive.


The federal government has contributed $65 million, according to Higgins.

"But at the rate we’re seeing the federal dollars come in, we’re not going to be able to complete this project anytime soon," she said. "We need to see greater federal dollars coming in.”


The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing empty grocery shelves, Higgins said, helped shine a spotlight on area farmers' struggle for water.


“There is no doubt that the food insecurity conversation has helped," she observed.


According to Columbia Basin Development League, in the six counties linked to the Columbia Basin Project, annual crop production is valued at $2.66 billion and supports 45,000 jobs in Washington. 


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