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circular logo used by the East Columbia Basin Irrigation district with a canal full of water underneath a sun
Originally posted here by the Columbia Basin Herald
Terry Cosby, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, had some words of encouragement Monday morning for local officials looking to get more funding to replace well water with Columbia River irrigation water in the eastern portions of the Columbia Basin Project.

“We’re here to help,” Cosby said.

The NRCS chief was in Moses Lake on Monday to meet with officials from the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, the Columbia Basin Conservation District, the City of Moses Lake, the Columbia Basin Development League, potato processors LambWeston and Simplot and the leadership of the Washington State Potato Commission to tour some of the new pumping stations, distribution ditches and pipelines that are allowing more farmers in Grant and Adams counties to have access to Columbia River irrigation water rather than the declining Odessa Aquifer.

The NRCS chief was scheduled Monday to see how water is used on farms east of Moses Lake.

Cosby said Congress has appropriated significant funding under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act for infrastructure projects across the country. However, Cosby said he has a long waiting list to fund projects like the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP), and so he suggested local officials responsible for overseeing the project work with legislators and others to make their case to both Congress and the NRCS to receive some of that funding.

“What you’re doing here is pretty important,” Cosby said of the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project. “So I would recommend that you be pretty aggressive. Get those proposals in and talk to the right folks.”

According to data provided by the Columbia Basin Development League, the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District and the Columbia Basin Conservation District, around $215 million has been appropriated to the OGWRP since 2005, when the state commissioned a study into the declining aquifer. Most of that money — $126 million — has come from the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Office of the Columbia River, with another $65 million from the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the entire Columbia Basin Project.

Roughly $500 million is believed to be needed in order to complete the design and construction of nine additional pumping plants and delivery systems (including on-farm improvements), the organizations say, to take a total of 80,000 acres off well irrigation.

The funding is needed because the Columbia Basin Project, begun in the late 1930s, was never completed, and currently only around 700,000 of the 1 million acres authorized for irrigation have access to project water. The East High Canal, which would have provided irrigation water to much of that land, was defunded in the early 1970s, and according to Craig Simpson, the secretary-manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, the East Low Canal was never finished.

Cosby, a career civil servant with the USDA, wondered how much Columbia River water the project uses, how much water it takes to grow a potato, and is climate change putting access to river water at risk in the future.

“It takes about 20-25 gallons of water per pound (of potatoes),” said Rich Burres, manager of sustainable agriculture for LambWeston.

Simpson said a typical ECBID contract provides for three-acre-feet of water per acre per year, and that the Columbia Basin Project on average utilizes about 3%-4% of the Columbia River’s total water flow, or about 2.9 million acre-feet of diversion at Grand Coulee Dam, though through reuse and recapture the entire project is able to deliver around 3.6 million acre-feet of water to customers in an average year.

“We’ve never had a shortage ever,” Simpson said. “We’ve had capacity constraints because our canals aren’t big enough to meet the demand. … But the water supply exists.”

Cosby said the NRCS has allocated about $500 million of the $1 billion Congress authorized for infrastructure projects including water projects like canals and repair work on dams, something he said he views as essential to protecting communities and farmland across the country.

“Most of our dams are about 60 years old. So we’re going back and redoing most of these dams,” he said, noting that NRCS is focusing on redoing pipes and spillways. “There’s close to 2,000 dams across the country that we are trying to rehab that are in our emergency program.”

Cosby also said it’s important for him to get out of Washington, D.C., and come view things like the Columbia Basin Project — the largest irrigation project in the country — in order to get a sense of what’s working and what needs help.

“I’m out a lot, probably two or three times a month I’m on the road, just looking at the conservation across the country,” he said. “I like to come out and see these projects and look at what these investments are doing and what they’re going to do for the people that we’re trying to serve.”
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