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By Rep. Mary Dye
R-Pomeroy 

Irrigation project gaining traction

 

Last updated 6/27/2023 at 8:53am



In 1922, the Columbia Basin Irrigation League was formed. Just a year later, Congress passed a bill allowing an investigation of the irrigation project with appropriations of $100,000.

This was the very beginning of the process that led to construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest dam in the world at the time, to help provide irrigation to the Columbia Basin, and power to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. It was also the beginning of one of the largest irrigation efforts in the nation, the Columbia Basin Project.

The original project called for an area of canals to irrigate the full 1.2 million acres in the Columbia Plateau, which was a dusty, dry and laborious place to live.

Pioneer farmers knew the rich soil had potential, but average rainfall was less than 10 inches annually. Dryland farming was challenging.

Thanks to the Grand Coulee Dam, and the massive John W. Keys III pump generating plant completed at the dam in 1951, the 12 pumps move water into a canal that flows into Banks Lake, which provides irrigation water to more than 670,000 acres in the Columbia Basin Project. It was largely funded from revenues from the third powerhouse at the dam. This has helped to create an agriculture-based economy in Eastern Washington, providing thousands of farm-family jobs.

Yet, it was still less than half of the original intended project. The eastern portion of the project across the Odessa subaquifer was never completed. Unfortunately, the project waned in the 1960s and the Department of Ecology issued deep well permits in those areas to provide water temporarily.

For 50 years, those wells have sustained agriculture, food processing, jobs and families in those communities. However, those wells are drying up. In some of those wells, pumped water is emerging at nearly 115 degrees Fahrenheit and loaded with salt, which is very destructive to our agricultural lands.

A team of legislators, including Sen. Schoesler, Sen. Judy Warnick, Sen. Jim Honeyford (now retired), Rep. Tom Dent and myself, have worked together on the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project, which would replace the deep wells on 90,000 acres with surface water from the Columbia Basin Project. This year, our legislative team, with the support of the Capital Budget committees in both the House and Senate, were able to secure state funding of $32.8 million for this project.

I've also been to the White House several times with my colleagues, met with President Trump's cabinet, and have worked with our congressional delegation to push this project forward. On April 7, 2022, 100 years after formation of the CBIL, Congress approved planning for the federal portion of the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project.

On Tuesday, I was honored to accompany U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Terry Cosby and NRCS West Regional Conservationist Astor Boozer on a tour of the Columbia Basin Project, hosted by the Columbia Basin Conservation District from Moses Lake.

We were also joined by Washington State Conservationist Roylene Comes at Night, state Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sandison and Department of Ecology Office of Columbia River Director Tom Tebb. We started the tour near Moses Lake along the East Low Canal down to Connell and back to Othello.

NRCS administers agriculture conservation programs and funding for watersheds. Chief Cosby told us federal U.S.D.A. money is available, but he recommended we get the application for the funding submitted as quickly as possible so that the project can move forward. That is our intent.

The following day, Wednesday, I toured Grand Coulee Dam and the Keys pumping plant with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton and Regional Director Jennifer Carrington, who were celebrating the 120th anniversary of the agency.

I ended the day at Barker Ranch near the Tri-Cities with National Association of Conservation Districts Past President Michael Crowder. We were joined by Sens. Schoesler and Warnick, and Rep. Dent.

It's impressive these top U.S. officials were here last week specifically to tour the Columbia Basin Project. It is my hope that someday the dream of 100 years ago is fully realized.

The Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project is a wonderful first step to this goal.

— Rep. Mary Dye represents the 9th Legislative District, including Whitman, Lincoln, southern Spokane and eastern Adams Counties, among other areas. Email her at [email protected].

 

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