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New Water Allocations May Ease Irrigation Worries

by Jamie Henneman
Capital Press, June 6, 2008

Columbia River water offers relief to Wash. farmers

Farmers who have faced irrigation water shortages in Washington state may get some relief by way of new water allocations from the Columbia River, according to a recent Department of Ecology study.

The Washington Department of Ecology has released an Environmental Impact Statement that proposes 30,000 acre feet of water be diverted to irrigators in the Odessa subarea, which is currently facing irrigation water shortages.

At present, Odessa irrigators rely on private wells that are as deep as 2,000 feet. The study also proposes that during drought years, 33,000 acre feet of water would support existing interruptible water right holders along the Columbia River mainstem.

Along with the agriculture-related releases, the study allots 27,500 acre feet of water to enhance flows downstream from the Grand Coulee Dam and 25,000 acre feet of water for municipal and industrial use.

In total, the proposed 82,500 acre feet of new water allocations would benefit both business and environmental needs, according to the DOE.

"For the first time in many years, we'll be able to issue new water rights from the Columbia River and do so in a way that balances both the environmental and economic needs of the region," said DOE Central Regional director Derek Sandison.

The driver behind the EIS study is the Columbia River Water Management Program, enacted by the state Legislature in 2006. It sought to examine why water permit applications for the Columbia River were in a deadlock.

Although the new water allocations may not actually be released until 2009, the possibility is good news to Alice Parker, of the Columbia Basin Development League. She has been working on a solution to water challenges in the Odessa aquifer.

"We are encouraged to know that 30,000 acre feet of water could be delivered to the Odessa area irrigators through this plan, and it would help relieve some of the pressure in the area.

But that amount of water could only irrigate about 10,000 acres," Parker said. "There are 140,000 acres around Odessa that are currently being irrigated from very deep wells on the Odessa aquifer, and the aquifer is slowly being depleted."

Although getting irrigation water to Odessa was part of the original Columbia Basin Project started by the federal government in the 1940s, that part of the project wasn't completed due to legal and environmental challenges.

Connell-area farmer Orman Johnson, of Johnson Agriprises, agreed that the additional water would help to ease his irrigation challenges, especially as the cost of irrigating has escalated as his wells have to be drilled deeper.

"We have had to re-drill some wells over the years, and in 2006 three of our wells went dry temporarily," Johnson said. "We have implemented some conservation efforts, but we are in a part of the state that only gets 9 inches of rain a year. Without irrigation, the only thing we would be able to grow would be dryland wheat, and the yields from something like that would be variable."

Johnson Agriprises grows potatoes, wheat, spearmint, peppermint and triticale, among other crops. Johnson said the area is ideal - with the help of irrigation.

"You can't get the kind of production we can get here when we have irrigation due to our long growing season," Johnson said, noting that onions and potatoes seem to do especially well in the Odessa and Connell areas.

Along with aiding farmers in the Odessa subarea, the new allotments would also help make interruptible water rights along the Columbia more consistent by being the third leg in a package agreement between irrigators and the DOE.

"As part of the voluntary regional agreement between DOE and the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association, the new 33,000 acre feet of water would be coupled with more efficient irrigation systems to make the interruptible water right more regular in its delivery of water," said Darryl Olsen, principal consultant to the association.

There are 350 interruptible water right holders within 1 mile of the Columbia River. Olsen said these irrigators are below the Grand Coulee Dam, in The Dalles and Chief Joseph Dam areas.

"The DOE has a flow trigger on the Columbia River so when the water drops to a certain level they shut off, or interrupt, certain water rights," said Olsen. "This affects all kinds of farmers, from row crops to tree fruits and vineyards. As part of the voluntary regional agreement, the DOE will lower their flow trigger so the water won't be turned off as readily."

The three prongs of the agreement - more efficient watering systems, lower flow triggers and more water allocated from the Columbia - should remove the uncertainty of an interruptible water right, Olsen said.

Interruptible water right holders who would like to be included in the agreement need to join the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association, as well as file the paperwork to join the agreement.

Public comment

The DOE will take public comment on how new water releases proposed in the EIS study should be prioritized through two meetings in June. DOE spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder said the meetings are to get input on which water-use applications should top the list.

"The traditional way of doing this is to issue usage rights by 'first in time, first in right,' but we want to hear from the public on how we should allocate this water," she said. "We want feedback on what our priorities should be."

The open house meetings will be 4-7 p.m. June 16 at the Coulee Dam Town Hall and 4-7 p.m. June 17 at the Colville Ag and Trade Center in Colville.

Jamie Henneman
New Water Allocations May Ease Irrigation Worries
Capital Press, June 6, 2008

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