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Symposium Evaluates Irrigation Project

by Shirley Wentworth, Herald Basin bureau
Tri-City Herald, November 4, 2003

After grinding to a halt in the 1980s, should expansion of the Columbia Basin Project be continued?

The question of restarting development on what is one of the state's largest irrigation projects will be raised at a Nov. 18 Moses Lake symposium, dubbed Exploring Solutions to Odessa-Sub Aquifer Depletion.

"We know that the aquifer is in trouble, and we know what the cause is," said Alice Parker, president of the Columbia Basin Development League, a group that keeps track of many issues that affect Basin farming. "So we're trying to go back and look historically and see why we're here today."

Parker called the review of all the issues affecting the aquifer a history lesson. The symposium features many of the heavy hitters in the irrigation business, including state officials, private consultants and legislators.

The Columbia Basin Project began when Congress approved the conversion of 1,095,000 acres of Eastern Washington desert into farmland during the 1930s. Its construction came on the heels of the massive Grand Coulee Dam, and people followed, looking for opportunity, jobs and land.

To date, just 670,000 acres of that original congressional allotment are under irrigation for crops.

The last major construction on the project, which is overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, was completed in 1984. The project then was subjected to an environmental review, which took nearly a decade. When it was completed, the climate was unfavorable to resume the project. And about that time, the bureau issued a moratorium that no more water other than what was currently allotted could be taken from the Columbia River.

"By then, all the endangered salmon were listed," said Dick Erickson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District and speaker at the upcoming symposium. "The total environment had changed. You just couldn't get political approval."

Development remained stalled despite the bureau's environmental review suggesting a preferred alternative would be to complete the East Low Canal, which feeds water to areas in Grant, Adams and Franklin counties, allowing it to bring water to another 27,000 acres in Franklin County and an additional 60,000 in Adams and Grant counties. This alternative, as expected, was praised by farmers and political leaders from many of the small communities in the Columbia Basin that would benefit from increased production of wheat, potatoes and other crops, although some continued to hope the entire project could be completed.

Yet, the project remained trapped by dwindling salmon runs, a moratorium on taking any more water from the Columbia and a dropping underground water table.

"In those days, we went to a meeting and left the car running," he joked.

Fiedler, another of those lined up to speak at the symposium, will talk about the aquifer's history and his agency's policy regarding issuing permits for irrigation wells during his era. Farmers counted on these wells to augment irrigation or use on fields not supplied by the Columbia Basin Project.

Irrigation wells are believed to be a major contributor to the declining water table. However, state regulators believed farmers eventually would be served by irrigation canals, and during the construction of the first half of the project, water tables actually were rising.

"During that era, the (Bureau of Reclamation) was talking quite positively about continuing with the expansion," Fiedler said.

But those new canals never came.

And farmers, who were allowed permits, find themselves having to drill deeper wells to obtain water. This adds not only to construction costs, but also tacks on power costs for pumping the water a farther distance.

"It's getting economically infeasible to continue farming," said Parker, adding that the little towns also can't expand without water.

With the quad-cities getting new water rights, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators obtaining a temporary permit and plans to use Columbia River water to supplement irrigation in the Yakima region, Walker said Basin farmers are trying to figure out where they fit in.

With the proposed Black Rock reservoir in the works, Erickson said, "People are starting to dare to think about it (the expansion of the Columbia Basin Project) again. But I don't know if there's a fundamental shift in thinking. ... Some of these guys think it's hopeless. It definitely is if people don't lobby for it."

Fiedler, now a private water consultant based in Puyallup, said the question is: Who would benefit by resuming the project? If the remainder of the canals were built, he said it would take stress off the water table because irrigators could shift to canal water. He said that -- depending on the type of canals built and irrigation systems used -- it could help recharge ground water as it percolated downward naturally.

"We know there are some environmental benefits," Walker said, going on to explain the widespread perception surrounding resumption of project development. "We knew if (we said this) had anything to do with just development, we'd be shot out of the saddle."

Shirley Wentworth, Herald Basin bureau
Symposium Evaluates Irrigation Project
Tri-City Herald, November 4, 2003

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