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Maddi Siegel (2) excitedly points to her Grandpa Mark Cronrath in the combine during harvest 2016
on Zell-Cron farms in Davenport.

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Progress Report

Construction in central Washington irrigation project continues to advance

June 2017
By Trista Crossley


While irrigators in the Odessa Subarea aren’t quite ready to cap off their irrigation wells yet, progress in the latest expansion of the 82-year-old Columbia Basin Project continues on schedule and under budget.

Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for the Columbia Basin Development League, a nonprofit group that advocates for development of the Columbia Basin Project, said there’s about a year of work left on the East Low Canal, which is the backbone of the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program (OGWRP). The East Low Canal will bring Columbia River water from Banks Lake to approximately 87,700 acres in central Washington, replacing irrigation wells that currently rely on the declining Odessa Aquifer. The construction is being overseen by the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID) and has been primarily funded by a 2013 $26 million Washington State Department of Ecology grant. Initial estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) put the cost of the completed canal work at more than $58 million; actual costs are less than half that at just more than $28 million.

“On the implementation side, I think it has gone well,” Schwisow said, explaining that the ECBID is doing as much of the work as possible in house and closely managing the construction for the work they’ve contracted out. “Costs experienced for what the irrigation district has constructed have been excellent. Reclamation did the design and has oversight, but that was the limit of their participation. The irrigation district is much more nimble on contracts than the federal government can be, which has resulted in faster action and cost savings.”

The finished work includes:

• Most of the East Low Canal expansion (it’s about 95 percent completed);
• Adding the second barrels of the Lind Coulee siphons and installing control structures and gates;
• Building the second barrel of the Warden siphon; and
• Replacing one bridge that crosses the canal and modifying the canal geometry to preserve another, newer bridge that crosses the canal.

Schwisow said the work remaining on the canal will cost approximately $25 million and includes building the Kansas Prairie siphons and five canal control structures and replacing nine bridges in Adams and Grant counties that cross the canal. Funding for the rest of the canal work will be funneled through the state’s Office of Columbia River (OCR) as part of its budget, as well as through bond sales. Although the exact amount won’t be known until the state legislature passes a capital budget (at the time of publication, the legislature was entering a second special session), the governor’s budget, the Senate budget and the House budget all included some funding for OCR.

“The approach the irrigation district and OCR has taken is they want to complete the East Low Canal portion of the project first. When it is at full capacity, then all the distribution systems can access the water from north to south. That’s when system development can proceed at its own pace,” Schwisow said.

While rebuilding bridges might sound like an insignificant part of the project, Schwisow explained that unless they are widened along with the canal, they create bottlenecks that impede the water’s flow. Currently, construction crews widen the canal up to the bridges, leave the canal untouched under the bridge and then resume canal widening on the other side.

As work on the East Low Canal grinds to a finish, the ECBID is preparing to tackle the first distribution system to be installed, the EL 47.5 pipeline, named for its distance—47.5 miles—from the head of the East Low Canal. In October 2016, the ECBID sold $16.8 million in tax-exempt municipal revenue bonds at a 3.87 percent issuance to pay for the EL 47.5.

“This particular system has had some struggles getting going. Being the first one out of the box is not a comfortable position to be in, because of unknowns and the system of normalized costs,” Schwisow said. “Every farmer’s situation is unique. Where they are in life. Are they ready to retire? The number of bad years they’ve had in a row. Everyone has to make their own decisions about this, because it is a lifetime decision. They are going to accept a water service contract and repayment for 30 years. It’s been strained at times, moving forward with this first system.”

Out of the 10,500 eligible acres on the EL 47.5, about 8,500 acres have signed up to receive the surface water.

ECBID’s decision to normalize construction costs has drawn the ire of some landowners, not to mention at least one lawsuit, which has since been dropped. Under normalization, all landowners, regardless of how far they are from the canal, will pay the same amount in construction repayment costs. The ECBID has capped those costs at $190 per acre. For landowners on the EL 47.5 system, the initial per-acre cost of the water is $205.10 per year, which includes ECBID’s yearly operations and maintenance fees. If the combined construction costs of the whole system reach the maximum level set by ECBID, that per acre fee could increase to $253.60. The Columbia Basin Development League is still investigating alternate financing routes, including improving the project’s standing to attract more federal funding.

When Reclamation did it’s initial feasibility study, the project had a benefit-to-cost ratio of slightly more than one to one; to be eligible for federal funding, the benefits have to be at least equal to the costs. Schwisow said the process Reclamation used to estimate the cost of the project was very conservative, and now that actual costs are available, the league and the ECBID are working on a request to the agency to redo the benefit-cost analysis using real-world numbers. Schwisow thinks the benefits will stay the same, but the changes in the cost structure should yield a more beneficial ratio, which could improve the project’s chances for federal dollars. It’s a slim hope in an administration that is intent on cutting budgets across the board.

“Dollars are going down all throughout federal agencies, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going got make our case. The federal government is still going to spend millions and millions of dollars, and we believe our project is worthy of some of that,” he said. “The goal, obviously, is to get the price down to the point where landowners can afford to take the water. That’s the key issue, but landowners will need to participate somehow. It’s unrealistic to think we are going to get enough grant funds to pay for the entire project, but it is realistic to believe there is a reasonable balance point in the participation of landowners versus public participation, if you will. If you make it economical for landowners to participate and stay in business, then you achieve the public policy purpose of getting wells off the aquifer.”

Since implementation of the project began, the transferability of water rights within the Odessa Subarea and what that might mean to the project has come into sharper focus. The stated purpose of the OGWRP was to move irrigators away from using deep wells that tapped the Odessa Aquifer and onto using surface water from the Columbia River. The remaining water in the aquifer could then be used for domestic purposes. As the ECBID began to map out the most effective placement of the distribution systems, it became clear that some of those eligible wells would be too far away from the East Low Canal or too isolated to service in a fiscally prudent manner. Schwisow said they’ve already seen some landowners along the EL 47.5 pipeline transfer water rights to lands closer to the canal. In the end, this could lower construction costs by shortening the pipeline systems.

One change to the project is the implementation of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the ECBID and landowners. Under the MOU, landowners can be “involved in the financing and development of the design and construction of irrigation facilities” subject to the review and approval of both the irrigation district and Reclamation. Under the terms of the MOU, a group of landowners can choose to pay the construction costs of their pipeline system up front and avoid paying interest. However, they will still have to pay any normalized costs from the construction of the other pipelines.

“(The MOUs) do not change the funding methodology. The costs are normalized for all the systems. This has more to do with planning. It provides flexibility so groups of landowners can, working with the irrigation district, provide for planning and development of the systems. This is part of the overall learning process from experience in designing the EL 47.5,” Schwisow said.

So far, the ECBID has signed two MOUs, one with a group of landowners on the EL 22.1 and one with the Marlin Hutterian Brethren who are on the EL 11.8. That system, the EL 11.8, wasn’t on ECBID’s original plan, but came about when the irrigation district offered 7,700 acres of water to irrigators who were on a pre-existing water contract waiting list. The Marlin Hutterian Brethren had 3,600 acres on that waiting list, and when their name came up last fall, Schwisow said the Brethren decided it was in their interest to have the ECBID do a distribution system for them. That agreement evolved into the MOU. Schwisow said he anticipates many of the future pipeline systems will use the MOU process.

Both the EL 22.1 and the EL 11.8 are in the planning and design phase now.