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League meeting highlights the power of water

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | March 8, 2021 1:00 AM

YAKIMA — It might be easy to forget the Columbia Basin is really a desert.

And the only thing making this some of the most productive farmland in the county is the multi-billion dollar Columbia Basin Project.

“I grew up on a dryland wheat farm, so I know the value of water,” said Madison Moore, an agriculture economist at Washington State University and the first speaker at Thursday’s annual Columbia Basin Development League conference.

The two-hour conference, online via Zoom, covered the state of the project, upgrades to existing canal systems, the expansion of water to the Odessa Aquifer area, what it would take to complete the project and where the money might come from.

But mostly it was a review of the power of water to change a desert and make it bloom.

“My great-grandpa would haul water from the Columbia River by horse cart, and that makes you realize the value of water,” Moore said. “I am always amazed at what water can do.”

The Columbia Basin Project is authorized to draw around 6.4 million acre-feet of water every year from Lake Franklin Roosevelt, the reservoir formed by the Grand Coulee Dam, which provides power for siphons that draw water for irrigation.

Authorized for 1.1 million acres of land, the project currently provides irrigation water to around 670,000 acres in Grant, Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties.

Moore said those irrigated acres are responsible for $3 billion worth of agricultural production — one-third of Washington’s total crop — and employ 13,000 people, or one in five jobs, across the region.

In addition, Moore said irrigation allows greater diversity in what farmers can plant and harvest, so the benefits of something like the Columbia Basin Project — the largest federally-funded irrigation project in the United States — outweigh the costs.

“We’re protecting an investment that benefits the state and the nation,” Moore said.

The Columbia Basin Development League was formed in 1964 to support the completion of the Columbia Basin Project, which itself was created in the mid-1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The project was intended to cover 1.1 million acres with three major canals, but Congress canceled funding for the East High Canal in the early 1970s, leaving much of the eastern portion of the project without access to river water and only two big canals to serve the entire region.

Extending irrigation to farmers who have been drawing water from the rapidly declining Odessa Aquifer has been the focus of a number of smaller canal and pipeline projects off the existing East Low Canal, according to Jed Crowther, development coordinator with the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District in Othello.

Crowther said the irrigation district, with the help of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, widened 46 miles of the East Low Canal to make sure there was enough capacity for the additional 87,000 acres the canal system will irrigate.

That will allow farmers who are irrigating with water drawn from deep wells sunk into the Odessa Aquifer to swap well water for irrigation water, he said.

Roger Sonnichsen, the secretary-manager of Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District, which distributes water to farmers in the western portion of the project, from Soap Lake as far south as Royal Slope, told online attendees the district has been hard at work over the last few years and spent around $39.1 million lining canals and replacing ditches with pipe to save water lost to seepage, evaporation and spills.

“It’s estimated we’ve saved 32,000 acre-feet of water,” Sonnichsen said.

Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Columbia Basin Development League, said it is still possible to complete the project, but it would take decades and as much as $5 billion to finish.

“It was designed to be phased in,” she said, noting no additional congressional “authorization is needed to finish the project.”

However, it would require a multi-year commitment from local, state and federal officials, as well as years of studies, before the first mile of new canal could be built.

“It’s no small chunk of change,” she said. “It depends on the political will, and will take a lot of time and a lot of money.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

(This article has been updated with corrected information on the dollar value of production on irrigated acres in central Washington.)