Irrigation districts, USBR look to title transfers

For the Basin Business Journal | January 17, 2023 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — Craig Simpson wants to be clear about something.

The coordinated effort to build a number of small canals and pipes from the East Low Canal to provide Columbia Basin Project water to roughly 90,000 farm acres included in the original project and replace well water drawn from the declining Odessa Aquifer, is not a permanent way to expand the project’s ability to deliver water.

“Odessa is being confused with full project development,” he told members of the Columbia Basin Development League during the league’s annual conference at Big Bend Community College in November. “It’s a temporary solution.”

“We need full development of the Columbia Basin Project,” Simpson added, noting that means construction of the long-promised third canal in the project, the East High Canal.

The Columbia Basin Project is the largest federal irrigation project in the United States, and is responsible for roughly $2.67 billion in agricultural produce contributing to nearly 3% of all U.S. grocery store purchases, according to Barbara Wyse, a senior economist with Highland Economics in Portland, Oregon.

“That’s a pretty big number, and it could become more important in the future because of challenges to other areas, particularly California,” Wyse said, noting that persistent drought and changes to water regulations may make farming more difficult in The Golden State.

Wyse noted that irrigated farmland is nine times more productive than non-irrigated farms.

“There is a large scope of product benefits,” she said.

When the Columbia Basin Project was authorized in 1935, Congress approved the construction of three main canals to carry Columbia River water to farms within the project’s 1 million acres in the Columbia Basin — the West Canal, the East Low Canal and the East High Canal. While the first two were built, the final canal never was, leaving roughly 300,000 acres without access to irrigation water.

Beginning in the 1960s, a number of farmers in the eastern reaches of the Columbia Basin Project — which includes parts or Franklin, Adams, Grant and Lincoln counties — instead received permits from the state of Washington to drill deep wells into the Odessa Aquifer for irrigation water as they waited for the East High Canal to be built. However, over the years, the water has been pumped from the aquifer far faster than it can be replenished, leading to much lower water levels and poorer quality water.

And thus the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP) was created to identify where extension irrigation systems could be built and then help find the money for the construction of pumping stations and pipes. One system, the EL 47.5 — at milepost 47.5 miles south of the East Low Canal’s origin — was completed in 2021, bringing irrigation water to around 12,000 acres formerly irrigated by well water.

Design and engineering work is proceeding on five more proposed irrigation water extensions, and three more are proposed, according to the ECBID’s Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program website. According to Simpson, finding funding for engineering, design and construction — the combined cost of two systems currently under design, the EL 11.8 and the EL 22.1, is currently estimated at around $150 million — remains one of the ECBID’s top priorities.

“Now is the time,” added John O’Callaghan, the secretary-manager of the SCBID. “Congress has said there will be money.”

Jennifer Carrington, regional director of the Columbia-Pacific Northwest for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency which oversees the CBP — said Congress has made funding expansion of the OGWRP a priority, and that slow and persistent work will get the system finished.

“It will take time, but I know we’re going to get there,” she said. “We’re committed to completing it.”

The OGWRP is not the only concern facing the project’s canal districts — which also include the Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation District serving farmers and the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District. QCBID Secretary Manager Roger Sonnichsen said the district, which provides water to 254,000 acres, is working its equipment harder and pumping more water than it was initially designed to.

“We start earlier and run longer,” Sonnichsen said of water supplies to irrigators. “Peak demand has now moved into August from July, and that has put pressure on demand.”

In fact, Sonnichsen said the West Canal, which was designed with a maximum capacity of 3,760 cubic feet per second, last year ran 4,100 cfs, and the district may need to impose limits on water use if it’s going to make sure everyone gets water.

O’Callaghan said the SCBID is also facing pressure from developers just north of Pasco and near Walla Walla as people relocating to the Tri-Cities look for homes. He said the SCBID is looking at seeking title transfer for district property in three currently irrigated blocks that are likely going to be sold and subdivided for homes. The Bureau of Reclamation simply does not have the staff to review the deals in a timely manner, he added.

“Pasco is growing, and we need to relocate things like pipes and ditches,” O’Callaghan said. “We need control at the local level. Developers will not wait, they will do what they’ve got to do because a lot of money is on the line.”

O’Callaghan said with the opening of two huge Amazon warehouses in the Tri-Cities this year, it is very likely three large blocks of irrigated land — one in Franklin County and two more in Walla Walla county — will soon be converted into residential subdivisions.

“Amazon built two facilities in East Pasco, they are huge buildings,” O’Callaghan said. “Where will people live?”

In addition, title transfers could give the ECBID some flexibility as well, Simpson said, given that the district’s Moses Lake, Othello and Warden weren’t always in the middle of town.

“These yards … were initially on the outskirts, and they’re now in the middle,” said ECBID Secretary-Manager Craig Simpson. “They don’t match up with (current) land use and there’s not enough room or expansion.”

Simpson, speaking at the Columbia Basin Development League’s annual conference on Nov. 17, held at Big Bend Community College, said the district is looking at using a 2018 federal law to get title to some of the properties and possibly sell or relocate operations — including their fleet yards and storage.

“We’re looking at taking over ownership of the land in Othello, either rebuild or relocate,” Simpson said. “We’re looking at the Moses Lake yard as well.”

Under the law establishing the CBP, all project works — everything from the Grand Coulee Dam to all the canals, ditches, pipelines, pumphouses and administrative buildings — are owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Three irrigation districts — the ECBID, the Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation District and the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District — have operated all the associated canals and waterworks needed to distribute water to farmers within the project.

However, because of that, any modifications made to project property have to go through an extensive review process by Bureau of Reclamation personnel — a time-consuming process that nearly always required Congressional approval. According to Marc Maynard, field manager of the Bureau’s Ephrata office, Congress passed a law in 2018 that would allow the Bureau to transfer the title of some types of irrigation project works to irrigation districts without congressional approval.

“We could always transfer, but until 2019, we needed an act of Congress,” Maynard said. “Legislation now allows for some kinds of transfers.”

The transfer of federal land and property to irrigation districts comes with the requirement that all federal laws are followed and the interests of the federal government and of tribal governments are protected, Maynard said. The advantage for both the USBR and the irrigation districts is lowered operation costs and greater local control, Maynard said, and would give local irrigation districts the flexibility they need to do real estate deals without involving the bureau in a cumbersome review process.

“We need to get it right, so districts can manage facilities on their own,” Maynard said.

At stake is water for a region that has turned a scrubland desert into one of the most agriculturally productive and valuable regions in the United States.

“A lot of us don’t realize what water does for a community,” said Port of Warden Commissioner and CBDL Board Member Dale Pomeroy. “This was scabland. It’s to imagine, but in the 1950s, there was nothing here.”