The Odessa Record -

Getting water from wells like betting in Vegas


“It’s like Vegas. Every morning we come out here, press a button and hope for water,” said Clark Kagele, manager at Kagele Family Farms in Odessa.

For farmers in the Columbia Basin within the Odessa Subarea, getting water from their wells is a daily gamble. Early each morning, they head out to the well pumps, turn them on, and wait for water. Their source is the Odessa aquifer and it provides water to irrigators, municipalities, industrial users and domestic users. Unfortunately, the source is declining to a critical level. Experts say, if action is not taken, the supply could disappear in some areas.

In 1943, Congress passed the Columbia Basin Project Act which authorized over a million acres of fertile land to get water stored behind Grand Coulee Dam. Currently 671,000 acres are irrigated, leaving just under half dry. All major parts of the Columbia Basin Project (CBP) have been built except the East High Canal system and the extension of the East Low Canal (east of Moses Lake). This infrastructure, however, is in a deferred status, according to the US Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation).

For a temporary fix as farmers waited for water, the State Department of Ecology issued permits in the 1960s and 1970s to provide irrigation water from the Odessa aquifer. The plan then was to use the wells only until surface water from the Columbia River could be delivered. However, project development stopped in late 1980s because of uncertainty related to the ESA listing of salmon in the Columbia River and changes in Reclamation repayment policies. Now, irrigators in the Odessa Subarea are still getting their water from the aquifer. Depletion of the aquifer threatens 100,000 acres of highly productive, irrigated farmland and threatens the drinking water supply for nearly 200,000 people.

“We’ve been working on this issue for years, and although water is starting to disappear, a fix is in the works,” said Vicky Scharlau, Executive Director of the Columbia Basin Development League, a non-profit group promoting completion of the Columbia Basin Project.

The fix started when a Record of Decision was signed by Reclamation Regional Director Lorri Lee, authorizing action according to an Environmental Impact Statement. Lee signed the document in early April, giving the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (District) the green light to begin work on getting surface water to those irrigators with state-issued groundwater right certificates and permits within the Odessa Subarea Special Study Area.

The authorized action will maximize the use of the existing CBP infrastructure to reach the largest number of acres at an economically reasonable cost. The two primary elements of the plan are to widen the East Low Canal south of I-90, and construct pump stations and pipeline systems to carry water from the canal to thirsty farms. Reclamation estimates the canal improvement work will cost approximately $75 million and the pump and pipeline systems another $700 million.

With funding from Congress unlikely, the District is pursuing various financing methods to construct the pump and pipeline systems. Assessments on lands receiving water would repay a majority of the cost.

The 2013 State Budget included over $30 million to be used for widening the East Low Canal.

Unfortunately for Kagele and his neighbors getting water from the aquifer, the threat of dry wells will continue until the work is done and turning on the wells will still feel like going to Vegas.


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