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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

State funnels funds to irrigation project

Capital budget included $15 million for Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project

June 2018
By Trista Crossley

When the state legislature passed last year’s capital budget in January of this year, it included a $15 million funding boost for the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP).

The funding will be split, with $5 million earmarked for increased delivery capacity in the first distribution system slated for construction, the 47.5. The other $10 million will be used to continue East Low Canal expansion work, specifically the two Kansas Prairie siphons, said Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for the Columbia Basin Development League, a nonprofit group that advocates for development of the Columbia Basin Project.

“It slowed the process down, but it isn’t the type of thing that will stop us from pursuing the goal,” he said of the state legislature’s delay in passing the capital budget. OGWRP’s goal is to move as many irrigators as possible off of deep-water wells and onto Columbia River surface water. “The issue we are pursuing in this whole thing is to stop the decline of the Odessa Aquifer so that resource can be preserved for uses other than agricultural production.”

The construction phase of the OGWRP has two major elements: expansion of the East Low Canal (ELC), which will move water down from Banks Lake, and the lateral delivery systems that will pump water out of the ELC and to approximately 87,700 acres. Schwisow said the end is in sight for the ELC expansion. Besides the two siphons, there’s still about 140,000 cubic feet of excavation left in the canal itself and some control gates that need to be built. The project is being supervised by the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID), with final approval coming from the U.S. Department of Reclamation (Reclamation).

Along with the final canal work, there’s also some widening of bridges that cross the canal that needs to be done, but that work will be overseen by Adams and Grant counties. Schwisow said there are 10 bridges that need to be widened at an estimated cost of $20 million. A group representing the counties, the ECBID and state agencies will be applying for a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to help with the bridge work.

“The bridges are bottlenecks in the canal. You can widen the whole length of the canal, but if you have 10 bottlenecks, you still can’t force water past them,” Schwisow explained.

The other major OGWRP element is the lateral pipelines that will move water from the ELC to farmers’ fields. There are at least eight of them, each named for its distance (in miles) from the head of the ELC. The 47.5 system, which was considered to be the least expensive system to complete, is moving ahead, albeit with a few snags that have pushed its completion date from 2018 to more like 2020, Schwisow said. The money from the legislature to increase capacity on the 47.5 delivery system means the design needs to be modified. Those modifications have raised some electrical issues that need to be addressed with the local utility company. Schwisow explained that as deep wells are shut off, the electrical needs of the region will change.

“They (the ECBID and Big Bend Electric) are looking at that because it affects the power coming out of the Schrag substation,” he said. “That has a dollar value attached to it. The irrigation district pays for those lines, and if they can save money by being able to offset the wells being turned off, that benefits everybody.”

Another piece of the 47.5 puzzle the ECBID has to solve involves easements. The distribution systems will have to cross both irrigated and dryland fields owned by both public and private parties. The ECBID has to follow federal easement requirements, which include, among other things, archaeology and historical preservation reviews and endangered species reviews. Schwisow said that as much as possible, the irrigation district will try to route pipes through lands that are receiving the surface water. The pipelines will be buried, and the land returned in farmable condition. However, there’s some irony in the fact that an irrigation pipeline may pass through dryland farms on its way to a farmer who is eligible to receive surface water.

“I have empathy for people who wanted project water and were in a project service area, but made the decision a long time ago that they weren’t going to drill wells but were going to wait for surface water,” Schwisow said “Now the people that drilled wells are going to get that water, and they aren’t.”

Early on in the project, the ECBID made the decision to normalize construction costs, meaning every landowner would pay the same amount no matter how much their particular distribution system costs to construct. The repayment of those construction costs was capped at $190 per acre per year for 30 years. Landowners will also pay operating and maintenance costs to the ECBID as well as a payment to Reclamation for original Columbia Basin Project construction. Those payments are on top of any expenses landowners incur as they modify their irrigation systems to accept the surface water.

If a pipeline’s construction costs threaten to exceed that $190 per acre, Schwisow said the ECBID will have to consider shortening the pipeline and serving fewer acres or find additional public funds. For some landowners, the cost of the surface water at $190 per acre is still too high, while others are trying to make it work.

Because the 47.5 delivery system is the first to be built, it has turned into something of a learning experience. Schwisow said one of the things the irrigation district has realized is that it needs a better way to work with landowners. In response, the ECBID has implemented a memorandum of understanding (MOU) process that allows landowners to be involved in the financing and development of their particular pipeline. Currently, there are four MOUs in place: the 11.8 system, the 22.1 system, the 47.5 system and the 79.2 system.

“(The MOUs) are a way for the irrigation district and landowners to organize themselves, share information and work together in developing these systems,” Schwisow said, adding that the MOU process is continuing to evolve. “The systems aren’t going to come right up to everybody’s doorstep. Basically, there’s a main trunk line that goes out there, and landowners have the responsibility of going to the trunk to get water. They’ll need to know where the line is going to be relative to their land. They have to be prepared for all the decisions that entails. The MOU process allows landowners to start producing those plans.”

While the ECBID hasn’t decided which delivery system will be built after the 47.5, Schwisow said it probably depends on which group of landowners is ready to move forward, not to mention whether or not the ELC is ready to deliver water to that system. He added that the irrigation district will likely want to have the water contracts signed and all the easements in place before starting construction.

There’s an effort by a group of landowners to have the federal government resume completion of the Columbia Basin Project. Schwisow said while that effort is consistent with the CBDL’s goal, the projected cost of completing the Columbia Basin Project is $3 billion. He’s concerned about losing focus on finishing the OGWRP.

“In my mind, we aren’t going to see the federal government appropriate $3 billion. There is an established methodology for Reclamation to evaluate water projects, so this would have to go through those steps. Whether circumstances are right now for that to move forward is uncertain,” he said, adding that it is important to keep the goal of completing the entire project in the public’s awareness. “There are very few places out there where we have a set of land resources and water resources that could bring 350,000 acres of highly productive agricultural land into production. That resource is tremendous, but we have a project we are working on now that is reaching for 87,700 acres.”