Forum Tackles Water Projectby Shirley Wentworth, Herald Basin bureau
Tri-City Herald, November 23, 2003
MOSES LAKE -- The Columbia Basin Project, stalled nearly two decades, may go forward.
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 irrigation project made news this week when numerous representatives from local, state and federal levels gathered at a Moses Lake forum Tuesday.
The last major construction on the project came in 1984, then it was subjected to a decadelong environmental review. By the time the review was completed, the Endangered Species Act had come into play regarding diminishing salmon and steelhead runs. The Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the project, issued a moratorium that no more water could be taken from the Columbia River.
Decreasing water levels in the Odessa sub-aquifer, which feeds much of the land under irrigation by the project, also factor into the water problem, officials said at the forum, Exploring Solutions for the Odessa Subaquifer Depletion. Irrigation wells are believed to contribute to the declining water table, and farmers have had to drill their wells ever deeper. That adds up to extra construction costs and power costs for pumping the water farther.
The Bureau just lifted that moratorium, making it possible for the Columbia Basin Project to compete with other claims on Columbia River water, such as Quad-Cities and Black Rock reservoir water rights.
"By lifting the moratorium, it puts everyone on an equal footing," said Bill McDonald, regional director for the bureau. "We can entertain proposals from people."
However, Dick Erickson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, cautioned that lifting the moratorium does not automatically clear the way for new irrigation or municipal/industrial contracts.
He said that with projects' water rights having a much earlier priority date, the moratorium could have the unintended effects, giving precedence to what should be junior rights under the "prior appropriation" doctrine of Western water law.
More than 150 people attended the forum, and many expressed interest that the project go forward. Some spoke in favor of a preferred alternative cited in the environmental review of developing another 87,000 acres.
Others asked, "Why not go for the whole show?"
"It's taken 50 years to get this far," said Alice Parker, president of the Columbia Basin Development League. "It has to go piece by piece."
Many said fish, farming and power interests would have to cooperate with various government agencies for the project to go forward.
"We are part of the mix. We probably are also part of the solution as well as part of the problem," said Art Tackett, Connell city administrator.
Tackett said Connell's water problems began in the early 1990s when it was close to not having enough water. He described how the city ended up spending $1.6 million on getting extra water rights. He also said rural agricultural towns depend on farmers, who depend on water.
"If farmers don't have money, they're not spending it in Connell," he said. "That's why we're in this together."
Bill Gray, manager of the Ephrata Bureau of Reclamation office, said that because irrigation is not a national priority, restarting the Columbia Basin Project will take not only numerous voices of support from the region but a plan that addresses the river's multiple uses.
Gerry O'Keefe, who leads Gov. Gary Locke's Columbia River Initiative, said his group is working on a study that will analyze the effect of taking more water out of the river. The governor's plan addresses balancing multiple uses for the river.
"Sometimes it seems like all we've been doing is fighting," he said.
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