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Growers weigh canal spending – Odessa water project could cost up to $17,000 per acre

By Matthew Weaver
Capital Press

Nov. 8, 2012

MOSES LAKE, Wash. — Irrigators in the Odessa subarea will ultimately pay most of the cost of replacing well water with water from the Columbia River, a state official says.

Derek Sandison, director of Washington Department of Ecology Office of the Columbia River, said the cost of the project is roughly $730 million. The department will request $36 million from the state Legislature for canal improvements, but the bulk of the cost will likely fall to landowners, he said.

That works out to a total project cost of roughly $10,000 per acre to $17,000 per acre, retired Washington State University economist Norm Whittlesey estimated.

Some of that would be offset by increased land values, he said.

“Once (farmers) got the water, (the value of) the land would be increased by $3,000 an acre,” he said.

The aquifer is declining, threatening the future of irrigated farms in the area unless water from the Columbia River can be brought in.

Whittlesey said the question that remains is who will pay the costs, whether it be farmers, taxpayers or electricity rate payers.

The creation of local improvement districts, or LIDs, by area conservation districts is a possible option for funding. Growers would repay the costs of expanding the water distribution system through assessments paid to the districts.

Craig Simpson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District in Othello, Wash., said the district is considering the LID process to see if it’s the best funding option to construct the water delivery system. Some legislative changes are needed to make LIDs viable, Simpson said.

The district will offer informational meetings on LIDs.

Simpson said current maps and analyses of the project are initial attempts to see whether the project should move forward. There will be opportunities to determine which land receives water, he said.

“If there’s a question about whether or not you’re in or out, it’s not determined at all right now,” he said.

Farmers’ opinions of the project varied.

For Othello, Wash., area farmer Skip Briney, the cost doesn’t pencil out.

“If (economists) could guarantee $15 a bushel wheat, that’s probably workable,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to guarantee our commodity prices are going to stay elevated.”

But Warden, Wash., farmer Marvin Wollman said the water is necessary to farm the Columbia Basin in the future. He said farmers, processors and customers will all have to work together to spread out the costs and make the project affordable.

Bradley Greenwalt, an Odessa, Wash., wheat farmer with roughly 2,500 acres, would like to see the entire Columbia Basin Project completed as originally designed. When it was first begun, the people involved also thought the prices were high, he said, and most of the original work is all paid off today.

“The longer we drag this out, the higher the costs are going to get,” Greenwalt said. “I think we have to find out what the final tally is going to be.”

Stakeholders met Nov. 5 at the Columbia Basin Development League annual meeting in Moses Lake, Wash.

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