Columbia Basin Project gains momentum
Last updated 11/20/2022 at 5:44pm
RITZVILLE – It all started a hundred years ago.
Back then, government officials and others saw great potential in the high desert lands of Adams County and surrounding areas.
Originally, the Columbia Basin Project — with Grand Coulee Dam as its centerpiece — was designed to provide irrigation water to over a million acres of land in the central part of Washington State, including the counties of Adams, Douglas, Franklin, Stevens, Okanogan, Grant, Lincoln and Walla Walla.
But the project stalled and remains unfinished.
Columbia Basin Sustainable Water Coalition Excutive Director Michele Kiesz wants to change that.
After introducing herself to the City Council Nov. 1 as a fourth-generation wheat farmer, Kiesz shared the results of a recent economic study conducted by Columbia Basin’s three irrigation districts.
According to the report, anticipated benefits from the project’s completion include $2.66 billion in annual crop production, 65,000 jobs, $4 billion in labor income, and $875 in state and federal tax revenues.
Kiesz noted that this is the largest unfinished reclamation project in the history of the United States. The project came to a standstill when World War II erupted and project funds were diverted to Hanford to build aluminum planes. After the war ended, project funds—originally earmarked for completing the Columbia Basin Project—were directed elsewhere.
“Billions of dollars were used for fish mitigation,” Kiesz said. “We’ve never been able to tap into sufficient federal resources to finish the infrastructure.”
As a sort of consolation prize, in the 1950s the state and the federal Bureau of Reclamation issued water-rights certificates to farmers. These allowed them to dig wells and use ancient aquifers until such time as the Bureau of Reclamation could finish the project.
“Many farmers didn’t sign up for these certificates, because it was very expensive to dig the wells,” she said. “As a result, only about 87,000 acres of deep-well irrigation were implemented. Our goal is to get these wells off the aquifer and tied in to surface water so we can mitigate aquifer depletion.”
In April of this year, the Bureau of Reclamation declared the Columbia Basin an “at-risk” watershed.
“That ruling allowed us to get enough funding to begin the planning process,” she said.
Even after all these years, the Columbia Basin Project remains congressionally approved.
“I believe God has been involved in this process,” she said. “One hundred years ago, to the day, is when the appropriation was approved. The original hearings for the Columbia Basin and Grand Coulee Dam projects were held in April 1922.”
Various stakeholders now have access to financial resources for restarting the project. The first phase — known as the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project — will use USDA funding through the National Resources Conservation Service.
The conservation service will pay 100% of the engineering and up to 75% of the construction cost. Growers will pay the difference.
Why is the project regaining momentum after so many years of inactivity?
“The fact that Lind, Ritzville, Odessa, and other small communities are having problems with their municipal wells has enabled us to build a story,” Kiesz said. “As humans, we don’t tend to pay attention to something until it becomes an emergency. When people started having problems with their wells, the communities started waking up.
“People have been talking about it for 50 years, but it’s suddenly affecting folks in our area.”
She added, “When Lind had their recent fire, for example, and their well went down this summer, they didn’t have enough water to put that fire out. A bunch of us in the surrounding farm community filled our water trucks and helped. That’s what’s waking up the communities. This is hitting everyone. It’s not just about the farmers putting water on their crops. It’s hitting towns.”
“Look at what has happened to Washtucna and Lind and other communities,” Kiesz said. “Because the promised irrigation didn’t go forward, these are tiny dried-up towns. The only reason Ritzville is still here is because we’re on the I-90/Hwy 395 interchange. If we can build the irrigation out to where it was originally envisioned, these small towns could thrive.”
She noted that when all phases of the project are completed — a 5-10-year timeline — 100,000 acres of prime farmland will be sustained by surface water supplied by the Columbia River.
Kiesz invited anyone interested in the project to attend a conference on Nov. 17 at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.
“If we can get surface water to this dry ground, it will be gorgeous. That’s my vision. That’s what I see when I drive around,” she said. “I see Tuscany out there.”