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Kendyl (4), Rocky (8) and Carlee (6) Howard enjoy harvest at the family farm near Dayton.
Photo by Julie Howard

COAXIUM

POLICY

Looking for solutions 60 years in the past

Is now the time for the federal government to finish the Columbia Basin Project?

June 2018
By Trista Crossley


From the very beginning, concerns about the cost of surface water have dogged the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project and sent invested parties scrambling for funding alternatives. One group of farmers think they’ve found a viable lead by going back more than 60 years—asking the federal government to finish the Columbia Basin Project.

In 1943, Congress authorized the Columbia Basin Project (CBP), which was intended to use Columbia River water to irrigate 1.1 million acres of cropland in central Washington. To date, only 671,000 acres have access to that water with the rest of it relying on deep-water wells that tap the Odessa Aquifer. That aquifer is now running dry, threatening not only irrigated cropland, but towns and residents who rely on it for drinking water. The Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP) hopes to move more than 87,000 acres off those wells to relieve the pressure (see related article on page 22), but there are fears that the project will be too expensive to meet its goal.

“The federal government gave birth to twins,” explained Michele Kiesz, one of the farmers who’s leading the effort to get the federal government to finish the CBP, referring to the finished vs. unfinished CBP farmland. “It raised one twin to be very productive, making money, paying taxes and doing very well. This other twin is still sitting in its dirty diaper. The state has been trying to help, but basically the feds promised to do this for us, and we are just saying, ‘Hey, the promise is still here, unfulfilled. It needs to be finished. We are still on the congressional books.’”

Clark Kagele has been involved in efforts to complete the CBP for decades. Both he and Kiesz serve on the Columbia Basin Development League’s (CBDL) board of trustees. The CBDL is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the completion of the CBP. It partners with Columbia Basin irrigation districts, including the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID), which has oversight of the OGWRP. Under the OGWRP plan, the East Low Canal will pump water into lateral pipelines to move the surface water out to farmers. Under the water contracts, farmers will be required to pay back construction costs over 30 years. ECBID has set the maximum replacement costs at $190 per acre, plus operating and maintenance costs. Kagele said it became very apparent very quickly that the planned pipeline systems would exceed $190 per acre. The likely solution, at this point, is to scale back the pipelines and serve fewer acres.

“The writing is on the wall that these piping systems and these pipelines are going to have to work their way back to the canal to make it an affordable system,” Kagele said. “Every time they’d do a cost analysis, whether it’s the Bureau of Reclamation’s analysis or a private analysis, the cost was just way too high.”

The solution, as Kiesz and Kagele see it, is for the federal government to construct the East High Canal. The canal would divert water from the main canal, just above Billy Clapp Lake, and use a gravity-flow system to serve lands east of the East Low Canal, including the land that is slated to be served by the OGWRP. According to Kagele, the storage for the water is already there in Banks Lake, which was built to service 1.2 million acres.

Why the push to finish the CBP now? Kiesz said she saw the opportunity when President Trump started pushing his infrastructure plan that pairs public and private financing to get jobs done. The private portion of the funding would come through the state’s contribution, as well as the taxes generated by the irrigated lands.

“On our end of it as landowners, we feel the value of our water rights is worth anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 an acre, so we are asking that they look at the value of the water rights we are giving up to the state to get the surface water to be part of our input on the project,” Kiesz said, adding that she also sees opportunity in the president’s goal to reduce the amount of time it takes to get federal projects approved.

In Kagele and Kiesz’s view, the completion of the rest of the CBP would mirror the terms of the first part, namely that farmers would have 50 years to pay back construction costs. They are also asking the federal government to consider taking back the revenues generated by the Bonneville Power Administration through power generation to use as funding for the CBP as well as the OGWRP. Currently, those funds are deposited in the government’s general fund.

“It’s a difficult issue because the money that was earmarked to keep developing the project (CBP) was put into the general fund, and it got allocated all over the place. We are coming to the front of the line asking them (the feds) to take another look at that,” Kagele said.

Another reason for the renewed focus on completing the CBP has to do with the OGWRP. In the original CBP plan, the East High Canal would reach much of the land that is slated to be served by the OGWRP pipelines. If the East High Canal is built, Kiesz and Kagele worry that farmers could end up paying for two systems.

Kiesz and Kagele have found support for finishing the CBP from both state and federal lawmakers. State Rep. Mary Dye and state Sens. Mark Schoesler and Judy Warnick have lent their support. On the federal side, Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers and both of Washington’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, have been very supportive of the effort. In December, Kiesz and Kagele went back to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials, including officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the White House.

Both farmers see the impacts of the Odessa Aquifer running dry reaching far beyond individual farmers. As wells dry up, land values could drop, reducing the amount counties collect in taxes. And that’s only a drop in the bucket when you consider how many businesses in rural communities rely on agriculture.

“We see the opportunity, and basically, this is it. If this doesn’t happen this time, then there will be no future. If these wells go dry, the lands are going to go dry,” Kiesz said.

While Kiesz and Kagele would like to see the CBP ultimately completed, if that’s not feasible, they’d like to see any additional funding routed to the OGWRP so it reaches as many acres as possible at a price that’s affordable to the farmers. Kiesz says that the repayment costs of $190 (which doesn’t include the operating and maintenance costs charged by the irrigation district) is still too high for many of the farmers. She figures that the water is affordable at a maximum price of $150 per acre, which needs to include all repayment and operating and maintenance costs. Farmers will also have to pay to connect their private systems to the ECBID’s pipelines.

“At the very least, we need to finish the OGWRP, get as many wells off the aquifer as possible as efficiently as possible and as affordable as possible,” Kagele said.