$73M allocated for Columbia water to replace deep-well farm irrigation

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Nearly $73 million in federal and state monies has been appropriated for new infrastructure delivering additional Columbia River water to replace deep-well farm irrigation that is depleting a major underlying aquifer in central Washington.

A trio of large-scale irrigation projects will be funded to expand the Columbia Basin Project eastward in what is called the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program.

Since 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Washington Department of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River, and the Othello-based East Columbia Basin Irrigation District in Adams and Grant counties have collaborated in efforts to provide a reliable supply of river water to irrigate thousands of acres of high-value cropland which currently rely on deep wells that tap into the Odessa Subarea Aquifer.

The underlying groundwater is declining, leading to drilling deeper wells – some as deep as 2,100 feet – that produce increasingly saline water and threaten drinking water supplies to rural residents and over a dozen communities including Lind, Odessa, Connell, Othello, Warden, Hatton, Moses Lake, Wilson Creek and others.

By reducing extraction from the deep wells, the aquifer can recharge naturally over time, say officials, citing the environmental, agricultural, and economic benefits of the groundwater replacement program.

A total of $40 million has been provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to a regional conservation partnership based on three proposals submitted by the Columbia Basin Conservation District. NRCS also contributed $6 million in 2022.

In addition, Washington state's current capital budget appropriated $32.8 million as matching dollars. And another $42 million in cash and in-kind services are being provided by 14 partners that include federal and state agencies, area conservation districts, Washington State University, the Columbia Basin Development League, and state potato and wheat grower associations.

“This is a significant milestone in a decades-long project and I’m thrilled to see this level of support and momentum, which is the direct result of our partnerships,” said Craig Simpson, secretary-manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, the largest irrigation district in the state.

The funding will pay for construction of mainline canal extensions, laterals, and “buildouts” to connect water supplies to farms. Initial construction is expected to begin before next March. When operational, the three systems are expected to conserve over 165,000 acre-feet of water within the aquifer while delivering replacement water to 13,000 acres of farmland, said conservation and irrigation district officials.

“The Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program is a tremendous conservation project,” NRCS state conservationist Roylene Comes At Night said in a Monday news release. “Agriculture is a growing business in Washington, while in many states it is dying. With these funds as a partnership, we will ensure that it continues to grow in conservational sound ways.”

Tom Tebb, director of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River, thanked state legislators for the capital budget appropriation. Supporters of the allocation included Sen. Judy Warnick and Rep. Tom Dent of Moses Lake, Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, Rep. Mary Dye of Pomeroy, along with Simpson and ECBID irrigation development coordinator Jon Erickson.

The trio of Columbia Basin projects are among five conservation-related efforts in Washington state approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Service with funding from the federal Farm Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act. The two others were $17.8 million for water supply and fish habitat improvements in the Upper Yakima River and $16.5 million for a project led by Agspire Inc. to reduce methane gas emissions from cows in Washington dairies.

The appropriations coincide with last week’s announcement by NRCS that the agency intends to adopt a final environmental impact statement prepared by the federal Bureau of Reclamation in cooperation with the Washington Department of Ecology on the 2012 Odessa Subarea Special Study.

The study had analyzed the potential to replace groundwater irrigation up to 102,600 acres of land with Columbia River surface water. Public comments are being accepted on the proposed EIS adoption into early December. Information is available at https://www.ogwrp-programs.org/watershed-plan.

The Columbia Basin Project serves about 671,000 acres in east central Washington. Water for irrigation is pumped out of the Columbia River at Grand Coulee Dam and travels south through over 300 miles of main canals, 2,000 miles of laterals, and 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways before terminating near Pasco.

Irrigators use about 2.5 million acre-feet of Columbia River water each year while re-use of “reclaimed” water provides an additional one million acre-feet for irrigation.


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