Delivering Real, Wet Water

Published in Irrigation Leader Magazine 2014

Dozens took part in a ceremony held March 6, as federal, state, and local agencies signed contracts to deliver water through the new Weber Siphon to irrigators on the Odessa aquifer in the eastern part of Washington State.

Washington State Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon reminded attendees that just a few years back, a similar group of people gathered to celebrate the construction of the Weber Siphon.

“We’re delivering real, wet water through that siphon, as early as this year, to farmers in the Odessa area,” Bellon said. “This is realizing a dream and a promise. A promise we took up in 2004 when some parties signed an MOU. And a promise made again in 2006 when the Columbia River water development program was created by the state legislature.”

Bellon said the water supports $200 million in irrigated crops annually and 4,500 jobs, or about 32 percent of the total jobs in the Columbia Basin Project area, and will help prevent the continued decline of the Odessa Subarea aquifer, an irreplaceable natural resource.

During the ceremony, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Northwest Regional Director Lorri Lee and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District Board President Don Osborne signed a contract to deliver 30,000 acre-feet of water from the state’s Lake Roosevelt Project to 10,000 acres of cropland through the new Weber Siphon and a contract for the Coordinated Conservation Plan water (6,000 acres).

Ecology Director Bellon presented Regional Director Lee with a secondary-use permit for 164,000 acre-feet of Columbia River water to be delivered to 70,000 acres of farmland that now rely on the declining Odessa Subarea aquifer. The secondary-use permit will be used to deliver water through the increased capacity of the East Low Canal, which is seen as a crucial link in moving water to farmers.

The water right (secondary-use permit) fulfills a top priority of the state’s Office of Columbia River, tasked with securing a new source of water for farmers growing mainly high-value potato and grain crops in the Odessa Groundwater Management Subarea.

Retired Reclamation Ephrata Field Manager Bill Gray spoke about the history of the Odessa and the Columbia Basin Project. A moratorium was put on the project in June 1993; Gray said the time-out was called until players could figure out the next steps to take for project continuation. The moratorium was lifted in 2003, and in 2004, stakeholders—Reclamation, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and irrigation districts—worked together and agreed to a memorandum of understanding. Gray said that the date of the memorandum of understanding marked the start of getting irrigators off the declining aquifer.

“That was 10 years ago,” Gray said. “These things just take time.”

Current Reclamation Ephrata Field Manager Stephanie Utter said that in 2012, the final environmental impact statement was released, and the preferred alternative was chosen as action to protect the declining aquifer and get irrigators a groundwater replacement. In April 2013, Lee signed the record of decision and work began. Less than a year later, Reclamation gave permission for the East Irrigation District staff to start construction, meetings have been held with landowners for eligibility requirements, and contracts have been signed.

There are three different sources of water for the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program: Lake Roosevelt, conservation among the three project irrigation districts, and expansion of the Columbia Basin Project. The three sources equal nearly 86,000 acres of irrigation water.

“Last year, DOE made $2 million available to widen East Low Canal and deliver water for the Lake Roosevelt Incremental Release Program,” said East Irrigation District Manager Craig Simpson. “We did that, and now we have $26 million from the state and are working on zone 1.”

For zone 1, the East Irrigation District is working to widen the East Low Canal from Weber Siphon to Lind Coulee Wasteway Gate, construct a Lind Coulee Wasteway Gate, and modify affected bridges. Future work (zone 2) includes adding second barrels to five siphons, widening the East Low Canal from Lind Coulee Wasteway to Scooteney Wasteway, and modifying additional affected bridges.

East Irrigation District continues to work on moving dirt from the East Low Canal in hopes to deliver water as early as this month. Reclamation and East Columbia Basin Irrigation District have begun contract negotiations for irrigation of 70,000 acres under the new permit. Irrigators who choose to enter the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program are required to set aside their rights to groundwater withdrawals, which will place them into standby reserve status.

“We have a natural resource that’s very important,” Lee said. “It’s great to be a part of group that is willing to take care of it [water].”