The Agriculture & Natural Resource Center of Excellence (ANR COE) team, along with Representative Skyler Rude, attended a tour of the Odessa Ground Water Replacement Program (OGWRP) led by Jennifer Hickenbottom (United States Bureau of Reclamation), Tom Tebb (Office of the Columbia River Director), Jed Crowther and Odelia Linden (East Columbia Basin Irrigation District Development Coordinator and Development Office Clerk). The photo below was taken during the tour at one of their projects (Lind Coulee Siphon #2 Test Sections) that will help deliver water to Odessa Subarea farmers.
Water is the lifeblood of farmers here in Washington state where irrigated crops account for 1.8 million acres, of which 75% is derived from surface water and 25% from ground water. Additionally, irrigated agriculture accounts for the largest share of the nation’s consumptive water use; according to WSU, 80% of Washington water withdrawals are for agriculture. Irrigated agriculture yields high-value crops like apples, alfalfa, potatoes, and hops and is a major pillar in Washington’s diverse economy. These high-value water-intensive crops rely entirely on irrigation, in a region that receives little annual precipitation. Water is an economic necessity in the Columbia Basin. The ever-rising hurdles to access water will define a generation, as it has defined previous generations.
Historically, farmers were encouraged to homestead the dry Columbia plateau as a result of the Reclamation Act of 1902, intended to boost development of the arid West. While the region contains rich fertile soil dating back to the Missoula floods, it lacks the annual precipitation to support the current scale of agriculture in the region.
Since then, reservoirs, canals, siphons, pumping plants, and pipeline systems have been built and expanded to support the water demands of the Columbia Basin. The transformation of the west from semi-arid and low-value grazing into one of the largest productive agricultural areas in the US, would be near impossible without irrigation infrastructure. The structures that are supporting these irrigated systems (reservoirs, canal, and siphons) are sub-projects of the Columbia Basin Project and The Columbia River Initiative (which the Columbia River Water Management Programs sprang from). OGWRP stems from both projects.
The goal of OGWRP is to reduce further depletion of the Odessa aquifer, to reserve that groundwater for the surrounding municipalities and to remove declining groundwater wells in an effort to provide a long-term irrigation water supply to support Washington’s economic vitality and stability. The OGWRP is an innovative approach to improve irrigation water supply through the expansion of the East Low Canal to serve about 100,000 more acres of eligible lands in a portion of the Columbia Basin project.
These projects are a huge endeavor and therefore require multi-agency involvement. These partnerships range from federal, state, and local and include the following: The United States Bureau of Reclamation, The Department of Ecology Office of Columbia River, The East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, The South Columbia Irrigation District, The Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation District and local landowners who have invested in capital costs for design and construction of delivery systems. Some of the original farmsteads who invested in the initial capital costs for their own private wells while awaiting completion of final phases of the Columbia Basin Project and did so for the benefit of future generations. Yet, some of these multi-generational farming families may not yet access all potential irrigation water supplies due to delay in the construction of the East High Canal; which has significantly impacted the crop profitability, as crop yields and crop value significantly decrease without access to water. This exemplifies the adversity our irrigated farmers experience generation to generation; and the wide-ranging socio-economic pressures of modern-day farming in fairly uncertain times. However, the legacy of farmers in Washington will persevere.
The hydrologic and socio-economic complexity of water in the Columbia Plateau presents considerable short-term and long-term challenges to the partnerships and stakeholders tied to OGWRP. Water scarcity in the face of our changing global climate will challenge how we manage water resources in an effective, equitable, and sustainable manner. Moving forward, while nearly 100,000 acres now have the opportunity to receive reliable access to water under OGWRP, there are over 250,000 acres still to be developed. As the construction and development of current and upcoming projects are underway, advocacy for funding continues. The East District recently received the contracting authority for OGWRP acres by completion of an Amendment to the Renewal Master Water Service Contract with Reclamation, which provides more certainty for landowners to invest in the delivery systems.
This was a thought-provoking tour of the scale of water-demand issues pressuring irrigated farmers in the Columbia plateau. ANR COE hopes to assist in planning student tours of OGWRP in the K-12 and post-secondary system. To learn more about upcoming tours, contact Ceana Pacheco at [email protected]