It’s all about the water: The importance of irrigation in the Basin

Hagadone News Network | November 21, 2022 1:00 AM

COLUMBIA BASIN — Thanks to the Columbia Basin Project, more than 700,000 acres of land are irrigated between four counties in Washington. Each year, each of the three irrigation districts are responsible for distributing and maintaining the water and the canals that bring it, in order to make the project work as intended.

“What the Bureau (of Reclamation) did back in the ’40s and ’50s, with design and construction, you’re just like ‘holy cow,’” said Craig Simpson, East Columbia Basin Irrigation District Secretary-Manager.

The project was no small feat either. Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942 and just 10 years later, the first water was delivered from Grand Coulee.

“That’s one of the things that we struggle with here, even locally, is people remembering or recognizing the value of the project because we’ve all become so used to it,” Simpson said.

There are three irrigation districts that manage and distribute the water from the Columbia Basin Project; the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District and the Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation District.

A study prepared for the three districts, by Highland Economics, shows the economic contribution of irrigated agriculture supported by the Columbia Basin Project. The study states that the estimated annual value of crops in the CBP is $2.66 billion dollars annually, or a value of approximately $3,800 per acre. The primary crops grown include hay, potatoes, corn, wheat, beans, orchard fruits, grapes, herbs, onions, grass seed and other vegetables.

Central Washington is also home to recreation sites created by CBP irrigation infrastructure, such as Banks Lake, Potholes Reservoir, Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and Scooteney Reservoir.

Simpson said that while ECBID is authorized to be the largest, it is currently the smallest between the three districts in terms of acres served because of the CBP not being completed. He said ECBID is authorized for 472,000 acres of the over one million acres the project’s intended to serve, but ECBID currently only serves about 169,000 acres. The QCBID is currently on top as it delivers the most acreage at about 250,000 acres. The SCBID follows suit at about 240,000 acres. Between the three districts over 700,000 acres are served in Washington State.

“When the project is completed as anticipated, it will kind of flip flop,” Simpson said. “East District will be serving the largest amount of acres, then it will be South and then Quincy.”

Once the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program, a plan to save the Odessa area aquifer from depletion, is completed, the ECBID will serve about 240,000 total acres.

“The development of the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project is a huge portion of what we’re doing and what we get to focus on here but it is really important not to forget we also run the third largest irrigation district in the state and one of the largest in the United States,” said Simpson.

While irrigation is seen in the summer, Simpson said they are just as busy if not more in the winter because that’s when they have the opportunity to do maintenance work.

The ECBID also has been busy this year launching an official website and are looking to provide the ability to order water online and online bill pay in the near future.

“We didn’t have anything, we just delivered water,” Simpson said with a laugh.

Simpson noted that they are still working on developing parts of the website and as it is finished they will have lots more information and resources available for the public.

“We’re still fixing the website up a lot so bear with us,” said Simpson. “It will be a better product over time.”