PUD commissioners extend irrigation rate agreement

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EPHRATA — Certain electrical transmission costs charged to irrigation districts – and eventually to farmers – will remain unchanged for another year. Grant County PUD commissioners voted unanimously to extend the current agreement for another year during the regular commission meeting Tuesday.

East Columbia, South Columbia and Quincy irrigation districts are being charged about $800,000 to transmit the electricity to power irrigation pumps, called a “wheeling charge.” The charges followed the expiration of a contract between the PUD and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2016, and have been in negotiation since.

The contract was a “transfer agreement” between the PUD and Bureau of Reclamation. It was part of a larger agreement dating to 1976, when the PUD bought some electrical lines from the Bonneville Power Administration. As part of that sale the utility agreed to transmit electricity for free for some irrigation district operations. The districts had to pay somebody for the power, either BPA or another supplier, but didn’t have to pay for transmission until the contract expired in 2017.

Rob Skordas, regional manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, attended the meeting to ask for a continuing extension while a new contract is negotiated between the PUD, the Bureau of Reclamation and the irrigation districts.

The contract was supposed to be completed by late August, Skordas said, so PUD commissioners could consider it in September. The irrigation districts start working on their budgets in October, he said. “There are some unsolved questions that need to be answered before a rate for the districts can be established,” Skordas said, and in his opinion there’s not enough time to get those questions answered.

Utility district employees have conducted a study to determine how much it actually costs to provide the power. The study resulted in a proposal that is about double the current fee. Skordas said that’s an undue burden on farmers.

“We don’t consider the farmer, the irrigator, to be an average customer,” Skordas said, and asked for consideration of what he called the “unique” circumstances of irrigation in the project. Those circumstances require a “unique transfer rate,” in his opinion.

“From my perspective, the farming community is a heritage customer of the PUD,” said commissioner Tom Flint. “Essentially, from my understanding and looking at things, you should be considered a heritage customer on the wholesale rate.” Not all commissioners may agree, he said, but he thought it would be possible for the parties to work together and come up with an equitable solution.

Commissioner Larry Schaapman proposed extending the current agreement for an additional year, and asked if a discussion of the proposal could be added to the Aug. 27 agenda. General manager Kevin Nordt said commissioners could vote on it immediately, if the commissioners were in agreement.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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