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Celia VanHollebeke (9 months old) enjoys her first handfuls of dirt while visiting her grandfather, Butch VanHollebeke, at his farm in Kahlotus.
Photo taken by Amy VanHollebeke

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FARMER'S TOOLBOX

What the growers have to say about the plan to replace groundwater with surface water in the Odessa Subarea

April 2016

Brad Arlt

Despite an estimated cost of $250/acre, Brad Arlt and his brother-in-law, DeWayne Kagele, are leaning towards accepting a water contract when surface water becomes available to their 2,700 acres of irrigated ground 20 miles east of Moses Lake. They are counting on being able to grow more high-value crops to offset the water costs.

“While we are okay with that price, it’s going to be pretty tough to manage,” Arlt said. “We are between a rock and a hard place. We need water, and electricity prices are sky high. We can’t afford to pay electricity on our deep wells anymore.”

Arlt said they’ve had to deepen all four of their wells in the past, and four years ago, one of the wells went dry. They grow bluegrass seed, wheat, seed peas, canola and potatoes. They will be on the EL 40.2 pipeline (meaning the pipeline starts 40.2 miles from the head of the East Low Canal), which hasn’t been scheduled for construction yet. Arlt knows many of his neighbors think the price for the water contracts are too high and said at a recent irrigation district meeting, only about 25 percent of the farmers there indicated that they could afford the water contracts.

“It sure would be nice if the state could come in and help us out a little bit. It would be a dismal situation if we do run out of water and can’t farm with irrigation any longer,” Arlt said, pointing out that farmers help form the tax base in the Odessa Subarea, and irrigated crops are a big boost to the state’s economy, not to mention all the food processing companies that rely on irrigated agricultural products.

Orman Johnson

“If we could take (surface) water tomorrow, we would,” said Orman Johnson, a grower north of Connell who uses nine wells to irrigate 5,000 acres worth of organic and conventional crops such as potatoes, wheat, seed peas, onions, asparagus, spelt, triticale and peppermint. Unfortunately for Johnson, however, his closest pipeline, the EL 79.2 pipeline, is probably a few years away from construction.

Johnson is on the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District’s (ECBID) board and is president of the Columbia Basin Development League, a nonprofit group that promotes development of the Columbia Basin Project (CBP). He has been involved in Odessa Subarea groundwater replacement discussions for many years.

“We needed this project yesterday,” he said. “We’ve been working on it for a long time. We’ve gotten the price (of the water contracts) to a point where about half of the eligible landowners will take it and half say it is too expensive. There’s justification for both sides.”

In Johnson’s case, three of his wells regularly stop producing water before the end of the growing season. He’s made the decision not to drill them any deeper and to wait for surface water to be available. Johnson said he compared the cost of running his wells and the cost of soil amendments to counteract the lower quality water coming out of those wells to the cost of the water contracts, and for his operation, it made financial sense to take the water contracts as soon as he could. He knows other landowners can’t afford to switch to surface water and said the ECBID board is still exploring ways to lower the cost of the water contracts.

“I think we can lower that maximum amount,” he said, referring to the board’s decision to cap capital cost bond repayments at $190 per acre per year. “Maybe we don’t deliver to as many people, maybe not deliver as far east and north as is currently planned. Maybe we deliver at 75 percent capacity instead of 80 percent. If we do that, that will lower the cost per acre some. I just hate to see us not take hold of this opportunity when we have it.”

Clark Kagele

Southwest of Odessa, Clark Kagele and his son, Matt, a fifth-generation farmer, grow potatoes, canola, alfalfa and wheat on approximately 2,200 acres irrigated with five wells. Due to the declining aquifer, he says he’s had to deepen two of those wells from 500 feet in the 1970s to 2,400 feet in the 1990s. He is slated to receive water from the EL 22.1 pipeline, construction on which hasn’t been scheduled yet. But like other growers, he is concerned that he can’t grow enough high-value crops to pay for the water and says the cost to move off his wells is just too high.

“It’s very disappointing,” he explained, adding that his family has farmed some of this land since the 1890s. “I don’t want to put this land in peril just to get water on it. It’s a matter of sitting down with a pencil and an accountant and trying to make it work. And at the price (of the water) right now, it isn’t working.”

Kagele is hoping that the irrigation district, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Washington state can work with landowners to either find alternative financing to build the system or spread the financing out over a longer period of time.

“They are asking us to double our costs,” he said, comparing the cost of the contract with what he pays to operate his wells. “But we aren’t giving up.”

Michele Kiesz

Michele Kiesz has about 1,000 acres of irrigated land south of I-90 that is eligible for the project’s first phase, the EL 47.5 pipeline, but concerns over the cost of the water have left her feeling high and dry.

“When we read that we finally had the thumbs up, that the state had given us some funds to get things rolling, we got excited. Then we found out how much the water would cost, and our jaws dropped,” she said. Once Kiesz added in the expense of retooling her own equipment and systems to the cost of the contracts, the cost per acre foot had risen to close to $300 for her. “We went back to the irrigation district and told them that we can’t grow anything legal on our property to make those kind of payments.”

Although Kiesz hasn’t had to deepen her two wells that irrigate those sections, she knows many of her neighbors have, and she’s seen a reduction in the amount of water her wells produce. She has banded together with approximately 10 other growers who are eligible to receive water on the EL 47.5 pipeline to pool information and to work with the irrigation district to lower the cost of the contracts, either through changes in financing or with longer terms. Under the current terms of the contracts, the costs will be paid back over a 30-year period.

Another point of contention for Kiesz is that other potential users of the system, such as municipalities or food processors, aren’t being asked to share in the building costs. She is also concerned that once a landowner signs a contract to receive CBP water, they could end up signing over their water rights permanently.

“You have to know what you are doing before you sign the contract,” she said.

Kiesz has grown potatoes in a four-year rotation with wheat on her irrigated ground, interspersed with various other crops such as beans, peas, onions and corn. Potatoes are her highest-value crop. She knows her costs to plant, harvest and sell crops and figures that at $200 per acre foot for water, she’ll just barely break even. She acknowledged that in some states, farmers pay triple or quadruple that amount for water, but the difference is that they can grow the crops to support those prices.

“People think we can grow high cash crops if we get this system in. We live in Adams County,” she said, laughing. “It would be lovely to grow pecans or avocados, but that’s not realistic.”

Kiesz said she is hopeful the irrigation district will be able to work with landowners to find a solution that works for everybody.

“I’m not trying to criticize the irrigation district,” she said. “They’ve been bending over backwards to get this thing done. They have worked really hard on this, but people need to understand, we aren’t being tightwads, expecting this system to be built so we can just hook up to it. We have always said that if we use it, we feel we should be paying something for it, just not paying for the whole thing.”

Kevin Lyle

In Kevin Lyle’s opinion, getting surface water to his 2,000 irrigated acres where he grows wheat, bluegrass seed, canola and seed peas, among other crops, will solve one major problem, but it raises an even bigger one.

“What are we going to grow to make it pay?” he explained. “To pay for that more-expensive canal water, we will have to change the way we farm. We’ll have to look at what crops we can grow, look into different crop rotations. We might have to start going organic or get more cattle grazing on the ground. We’ll have to find other ways to bring in more income. That’s a dilemma everybody is having.”

Lyle currently uses three wells that are declining in the quality and quantity of water they deliver and says it’s hard to justify spending money to deepen them. He pointed out that even farmers who currently use Columbia Basin Project water are having a tough time making ends meet, with low commodity prices and the lingering effects of last year’s West Coast ports slowdown on Washington state hay markets.

If Lyle decides to take surface water, his land, which is between Connell and Othello, would be using the EL 79.2 pipeline. Looking at the $210 per acre price quoted to the first group scheduled to get surface water, the EL 47.5 group, he said he would consider signing a contract at that price. On the other hand, with sons on their way back to the farm, Lyle said taking the surface water will allow him to expand his operation to accommodate them.

Many of the proposed pipelines go by dryland acres on their way out to irrigated lands, and Lyle wondered if those adjacent dryland acres could be developed instead of moving the water farther out, something that might decrease the water’s cost (although only farmers who have a current state water permit are eligible for the surface water). He also pointed out that in the initial development of the Columbia Basin Project, farmers were given a 10-year development period before they had to start paying back construction costs, something that could help Odessa Subarea farmers settle in with new irrigation systems and farming practices before project costs come due.

“The state’s already been a big help to the Odessa groundwater replacement project,” he said. “We really appreciate the state’s support, and we wouldn’t have gotten this far without it. But it would be nice if the federal government would financially support the project more.”