Contact Us I Subscribe I Advertisers

Harvest 2020 at Deardorff Farms in Colville.
Photo by Jayson Deardorff



Dowsing for water

State agency balances developing new supplies for thirsty fish, farmers, families

January 2019
By Trista Crossley

Water is never far from the surface when you talk about the Columbia River Basin, and one state program is doing what it can to make sure there’s enough to meet users’ needs now and well into the future.

Established in 2006 as part of the process to solve the Columbia River water rights gridlock in the 1980s and 90s, the Office of Columbia River (OCR), part of the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology), is primarily tasked with the development of water supplies in the Columbia River Basin that benefits both in-stream users (ecosystem, fish) and out-of-stream users (irrigators, industry, municipalities) through storage, conservation and voluntary regional water management agreements.

OCR has six main directives:

• Secure alternatives to groundwater for agricultural users in the Odessa Subarea;

• Find sources of water for pending water-right applications;

• Develop water sources for new municipal, domestic, industrial and irrigation needs;

• Issue water supply and demand reports;

• Find a new, uninterruptible supply of water for those whose rights are curtailed on the mainstem of the Columbia River when minimum flows are forecast to be unmet; and

• Make water available for in-stream benefits when needed most.

The program was initially funded with a $200 million bond. Just under half of that money has been spent on the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP), which aims to replace deep well irrigation systems in the Odessa Subarea with surface water from the Columbia River. OCR has funded the construction of several siphons and the completion of the East Low Canal, which will deliver Columbia River water to the individual irrigation distribution systems. OCR is working with local irrigation districts and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), which is the federal agency that manages the Columbia Basin Project, which OGWRP is a part of.

“We’ve created an additional 413,000 acre feet of water throughout eastern and central Washington. That water supply, in large part, is to help out groundwater replacement in the Odessa Subarea,” said Tom Tebb, director of the OCR. “We’ve been making great progress, but there’s much more to do. More importantly, we have to work with Reclamation and landowners to develop those distribution lines to get water on the farms. That’s the tricky part. It’s going to saddle people with more debt. They’ll be going from a flexible system as to how and where they can move water to a federal system that is pretty regulated because they (the feds) have to manage water in a consistent manner across 15 western states. That transition is challenging, both financially as well as mentally, but it has to happen.”

Another project OCR is working on is the six-year-old Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan. Tebb said the OCR has been working with state and federal agencies, irrigators, the Yakima Nation and other stakeholders to develop a plan to solve decades of water conflicts and address chronic water supply issues, drought resiliency, climate change, fish passage, ecosystem restoration, economic vitality and growing communities. Like OGWRP, the Yakima project is being done in partnership with Reclamation.

“The state’s interest (in the Yakima River Basin) is both economical and ecological,” he explained. “We want to improve where we live and keep the agricultural community solid, but we want fish in the rivers and the waters clean.”

OCR has at least two more large projects on their radar. The first is Icicle Creek, a major tributary to the Wenatchee River in Chelan County. The Icicle Creek watershed is part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the Wenatchee National Forest. Several lakes within the wilderness area are used to supply water for domestic uses, agricultural irrigation and fish habitat, among others. Tebb said that watershed improvements have been locked up in litigation for decades. “There’s infrastructure there that is pretty old that we could modernize and make more efficient,” he said. “Those water supplies were established in late 1920s or early 30s. Since then, the irrigation district has managed those in the way they always have, using very primitive equipment. They hike up there and have to turn a valve the size of ship’s steering wheel to raise the gate.”

In addition, Tebb said there have been storm events, wildfire, erosion and some degradation of the dam structure. Because of that, the district has stored less water than the water right allowed for. Part of the controversy is whether or not the irrigation district lost the water right since it hasn’t been able to maintain the facilities and whether or not the reservoir will be rebuilt to its historic level or the level its been operating at for the last two decades. The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for the Icicle Creek integrated water resource strategy is in its final stages. Although the Columbia River Basin is OCR’s first priority, Tebb said his office isn’t necessarily limited to that region. In fact, they have been asked to help develop an integrated water resource plan for the Walla Walla River Basin. A pilot program has been looking at the watershed since 2008 and is set to finish up this year, but Tebb said he is hoping to have it extended for another two years. In the end, any project in the Walla Walla River Basin could include communities in Oregon.

“We look across the landscape and figure out what works best for the people living there, the environment and how to sustain the agriculture that we have in place now. An integrated water resource plan is an attempt to connect all of those things,” he said. OCR also manages three large working aquifer storage systems in Yakima, Kennewick and White Salmon, and the office is exploring other aquifer storage opportunities. For the upcoming legislative session, Tebb has submitted a $300 million bond request to the governor’s office to fund the OCR for the next six bienniums. He has also submitted a 2019/21 capital budget request that would fund the Yakima River integrated plan at $42 million, and another $40 million would be earmarked for OCR projects in process with approximately $15 million earmarked for OGWRP.

Tebb has been director of OCR since June 2015. He has been with Ecology for 27 years.

“I’m lucky and privileged to be doing this work,” he said.

What kind of yearly operating budget and staff does the OCR have?

Not enough! We have a total of 15 people and an operating budget of about $1.5 to $2 million. We cover all of central and Eastern Washington. We are a small team. We didn’t take any additional resources when we took on the Yakima Basin integration plan. Now we are being asked to step into the Walla Walla project to help that process evolve.

That’s what’s special about this office. We have the opportunity to say where do we want to be, and how do we get there? Give us a process we can all agree to that gives us a road map, a plan, and I’ll help try to fund some of that work.

The Columbia River is a multistate, multination resource. How does a state program balance international and federal partners and priorities?

I do that as director through my director (Ecology Director Maia Bellon), but I’ve also been given the opportunity to work with other state directors, the Northwest Power Planning Council, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Commerce. There is a nucleus of state agency interests that participate on a state team chaired by the governor’s office. I provided water rights information and information on water supply issues for Columbia River System Operations EIS processes. We also work with the U.S. State Department through the governor’s office on the Columbia River Treaty and participate with various irrigation associations as well as county commissioner organizations to try to make sure we are hearing across all lines. We work very hard on communication. We also have contacts in the British Columbia government; the state of Washington and British Columbia have always been and will continue to be good partners and neighbors.

How does OCR balance the needs of in-stream users (fish) with out-of-stream users (industry, farming) in what can often be a contentious fight?

We are given a formula within the statute, RCW 90:90. With any new water supply, one third has to go to in-stream purposes. If you want my help, something has to be in it for the environment. Not just for the project, but programmatically. The project may only be for a water supply, irrigation, habitat, flood plain or an outright water right acquisition. We try to stick with a balance across the big picture, not necessarily for each project.

The OCR website talks about water being “developed.” What does that mean?

The idea is to take the water we have, reconstitute it the way we are allowed to under Washington law and repackage it in a way that makes it available to the next highest beneficial use. In some cases, that’s for farms and some cases for fish. We look at it as an opportunity as opposed to a problem. That process is the art of development.

There’s no new water out there. We are looking for opportunities to reinvent systems, better plumbing, a smarter distribution system that is less costly. Water conservation measures all of those things to figure out if we can accomplish the original purposes and then take any additional water supply and do something with it. There are great efficiencies that can be gained by looking at turn-of-the-century infrastructure and modernizing it.

Some climate models show Eastern Washington getting dryer or experiencing more prolonged droughts. Is the OCR preparing for that and how?

We are. The Yakima Basin integrated plan partnered with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group to help us understand some climatic models from most severe to least amount of impact. If we take the middle of those predications, it all says we are going to get warmer and have more rain then snow. We have to capture that in a reservoir or underground. We have to retime that water that was once a snow pack or snow pillow. In the past, we’ve had the luxury of nature releasing it over the summer and keeping streams cool. We aren’t going to have that in the future. We are going to run out of water in those places that don’t have adequate storage. We have to figure out how to do that without harming ecological functions. The best way is to modernize structures where we have them. We have also looked at climate impacts in the Icicle Creek watershed. We’ll do the same thing with the Walla Walla plan in the Blue Mountains. It’s absolutely a fundamental ingredient in developing these integrated water resource plans for the future.

How does the Columbia River Treaty impact the OCR? Are you involved with the negotiations?

We’ve mostly, at my level, engaged with other state agency directors. We are providing information and data around water supply and ecology in-stream flow needs.

What are some of the biggest issues you think OCR will have to address in the future?

I noted that we spent the last of original $200 million bond in the 2017/19 budget. Being able to plan beyond a biennial cycle for water projects and strategies is critical to the office’s success, which is why we’ve requested new bonding authority. It doesn’t mean we’ll get the money. We’ll have to develop a project list and have it vetted by stakeholders and ultimately approved by the state Legislature. But that give us a horizon and money we can point to to get matching funds or opportunities to really make those state dollars stretch and go further.

We are making great momentum. We aren’t as big as California, but we are up there in terms of planning for our future. I’m very proud of that.