State, feds celebrate new Columbia River project

SHANNON DININNY - Associated Press
Washington Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant,  left, and Pacific Northwest Regional Director Karl Wirkus of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sign an agreement, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011 near Moses Lake, Wash. to provide new water supplies for as many as 100 communities and irrigators in Eastern Washington. (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)
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Washington Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant, left, and Pacific Northwest Regional Director Karl Wirkus of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sign an agreement, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011 near Moses Lake, Wash. to provide new water supplies for as many as 100 communities and irrigators in Eastern Washington. (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

MOSES LAKE, Wash. (AP) — Eli Wollman and the Warden Hutterian Brethren grow hundreds of acres of potatoes, wheat, corn and other crops in arid Eastern Washington, irrigating many of those crops from wells that tap a rapidly declining aquifer.

They've been waiting years for additional surface water rights from the Columbia River, but the wait may have just gotten shorter.

State and federal officials gathered east of Moses Lake on Tuesday to celebrate the first major project to deliver Columbia River water to Eastern Washington farmers and communities since the 1970s.

State officials estimate these water resources will support 35,000 new jobs and add $3 billion to the state economy.

It's taken years to get to this point. Efforts to find new water supplies for the region have been in the works for decades, but this project required the collaboration of local, state, federal and tribal governments, farmers and municipalities that want the water and environmentalists who aim to protect the river.

That same collaboration will be needed to resolve water supply problems elsewhere in the state," Gov. Chris Gregoire said.

She called the project a show of the state's ongoing commitment to supporting its agriculture industry, which comprises 12 percent of the state economy with more than 300 different crops.

"It's a legacy of hard work. It's a legacy of partnership," she said. "That's what we're all about here."

A 2006 bill approved by the Legislature allowed for the drawdown of Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam to provide new water supplies.

State and federal officials signed an agreement Tuesday to provide new water rights to as many as 100 communities along the river, as part of the project.

Many of those communities lack water to meet demand for their booming populations. Some lack old enough water rights to maintain their supplies during periods of drought.

In north-central Washington, the small farm town of Bridgeport has seen its population nearly double from 1,200 people to 2,200, but the community has been waiting 20 years for a water right to meet growing demand.

The state Department of Ecology helped the community of White Salmon, on the state's southern border, find a new water right to meet demand.

"But we're always looking for water," said Patrick Munyan, city manager. "Our new water right will enable us to meet project demand for the next 20 years, but the 20 years beyond that, who knows? Every city should always be looking for water."

The project also allows for boosting stream flows in the river at certain times of year for threatened and endangered fish and provides irrigation water to growers in the arid, dust-blown region east of Moses Lake, which includes a major Northwest potato production area for the world's french fry market.

A massive irrigation project built there following the Great Depression of the 1930s aimed to deliver water to 1 million acres.

However, the project was never fully completed, and many farmers there had received permission to dig wells to irrigate their crops to tide them over until the project was finished.

Those wells tap the Odessa Aquifer, which has been steadily declining.

The state provided $800,000 to design a second siphon to get water to growers, and $36 million in federal stimulus dollars funded the construction. The canal is expected to be completed in early 2012, in time for the next year's growing season.

"This is pretty important to us," said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, a marketing group financed through member fees. "The potatoes that are grown in that region are potatoes that our processers rely on late in the season."

Without those crops — if the area went dry, for example — there's a strong possibility that several potato processing plants could close, he said.

Orman Johnson, whose family grows potatoes and six other crops on 3,500 irrigated acres east of Othello, doesn't expect to receive water from this project any time soon. But providing it to other farmers who draw from the same aquifer will help everyone, he said.

"It's good news," he said. "The big thing about this is that the state, federal government and irrigation districts really worked well together, and that's not always the case."

An appeal filed by two environmental groups, claiming that the federal government failed to meet the requirements of an environmental review for the project, is still pending in federal appeals court.

"While state and federal officials like to discuss the benefits of bringing more water to the Columbia Plateau, what they fail to mention are the environmental costs associated with new water projects," Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, a longtime critic of the project, said in a statement.

Still, Gregoire and others noted the collaborative efforts that went into the project.

Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, who grows about 600 acres of crops in the Yakima Valley, pointed to that area as another region needing collaboration of many to reach a compromise.

Declining snowpack levels are hurting water supplies in that area, which already suffers from regular summer droughts, he said.

"I have 17 months left in my job," Gregoire said to laughs from the audience. "We can get Yakima done."