Columbia Basin Project making headway through Odessa Groundwater program

For the Basin Business Journal | June 25, 2024 1:00 AM

CASHMERE — The Columbia Basin Project is making gradual progress toward completion with particularly significant accomplishments for the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program in the last six months or so, according to Columbia Basin Development League Executive Director Sara Higgins.

“When we’re dealing with a project of this size, advancement is kind of like watching paint dry, but yes, there have been (developments),” she said. “There are a lot of exciting things happening right now.”

There are more than 300 miles of main canals, about 2,000 miles of lateral canals and 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways in the irrigation project, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation website. The CBDL advocates for the operation of those waterways and for the project to continue “build-out.”

“If we go back to the beginning of this calendar year, to the state legislative session, we saw $5.5 million secured for the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program in the supplemental budget, which was very exciting,” Higgins said. “And that was adding to what was, I think, about $32.8 million in state funding secured last session, also for the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program. So last session, that was record funding for the biennium.”

OGWRP is one of the Columbia Basin Project’s main focuses due to the declining aquifer of the Odessa area.

“Those state dollars combined with last year’s $39 million secured in (United States Department of Agriculture), (Natural Resources Conservation Service), and (Regional Conservation Partnership Program) funding allowed groundbreaking on the second lateral in the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program to occur very recently. So that was really exciting to see that state funding combined with the federal funding, is now allowing for ELA 86.4 construction as well as landowner infrastructure farm build-out. So that’s pretty huge.”

Higgins outlined the basics of OGWRP. 

“So the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program, there are three components,” she said. “It’s expanding the canal, for additional water delivery, which is done. It’s building out the laterals and the pump stations to reach farmers that are on deep well irrigation, and then it’s also the on-farm development for those farmers to come and receive surface water … But another aspect of that that often isn’t considered is any time that there was a bridge crossing over the canal where the canal was expanded, now the bridge either has to be removed or it has to be lengthened.”

There are a number of these bridges in both Grant and Adams County, Higgins said, and the counties have worked recently to request funding for those bridge projects.

“Earlier this year, Grant and Adams County were notified that their fiscal year 2024 requests were awarded what I think amounted to almost $10 million in federal funds for bridge replacement or improvement in both Grant and Adams County,” she said. “We saw the next bridge in the sort of the bottleneck challenge removed earlier this year, Road W in Grant County, so now that process is also underway.”

Higgins said Grant County also submitted more funding requests for the fiscal year 2025. She said the Columbia Basin Conservation District is also seeking funding.

“Kind of continuing on the coattails of the $39 million that was secured last year through the RCPP program, the Columbia Basin Conservation District is applying for additional grant funding this summer, for some additional OGWRP build-out, so that’s underway as well,” she said. “And then finally, I don’t know if you saw a press release recently, but USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie recently toured OGWRP, so that was a real feather in our cap to be able to welcome him.”

CBDL hasn’t seen this level of funding for OGWRP before, Higgins said.

“We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that are needed, and now we’re starting to see the kinds of dollars coming through that can actually, you know, meet the need,” she said. “(To get the funding), It’s putting a lot of the puzzle pieces in place. It’s helping policymakers understand the urgency of the situation and it is the recent addition of USDA NRCS as a partner in the program.”

Higgins talked about the relationship between OGWRP and the Columbia Basin Project as a whole.

“This is project build-out, but not in the conventional sense. It is ultimately an aquifer rescue mission. Reaching some landowners with deep wells in the east part of the project, but doing it in an unconventional way,” she said. “That does ultimately turn our attention then to Columbia Basin Project advancement, and ultimately completion and the build-out of the overarching project and the remaining 300,000 acres that can be developed.”

OGWRP’s successes are part of the discussions of the project’s next steps, Higgins said. 

“We’re continuing with other stakeholders to be holding these conversations to figure out what does the next step look like in advancement?” she said. “Can we take a next step in advancement and do so in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the good work and the progress that we’re seeing with OGWRP?”

Higgins said the overall roadblocks to the project are pretty much the same as they have been since its inception in the 1940s.

“Funding continues to be the challenge,” she said. “We’ve got the water. We don’t have the infrastructure, so we need funding to build the infrastructure to deliver the water.”

Higgins emphasized that the recent wins for OGWRP, and therefore for the project as a whole, are due to the efforts not only of the CBDL, but also the legislature and CBDL’s affiliates and partners, the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District and the Columbia Basin Conservation District.

Higgins also encouraged community members interested in project and water conservation concerns to contact legislators and tell them their opinion on the matter and to stay informed by becoming a member of the CBDL. 

“Our state and federal policymakers are listening,” she said. “They need to hear from people because this is not just an issue for agriculture. Our municipalities are drawing from the same aquifer and we see municipal wells going dry and we’re talking about domestic water. We’re talking about residents living in communities that have water challenges.”

    A map and graphic from the Columbia Basin Development League website showing the cities, canals and coverage areas of the Columbia Basin Project. The red highlights portion shows the Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District, the purple highlights the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District and the yellow section is the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, including the Odessa Subarea.
 File graphic