The East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID) provides 167,365 acres of farmland with surface
water from the Columbia River, but the district is authorized to cover up to 472,000 acres as part of
Reclamation’s Columbia Basin Project. Irrigators within the district that are not served by surface water
have been relying on wells to pull water from the Odessa Subarea Aquifer. Over the decades, this
reliance on groundwater has run the aquifer to dangerously low levels and left many irrigators and local
communities without a reliable source of water. The ECBID has partnered with the Natural Resources
Conservation Service (NRCS) to develop a Watershed Plan that will help achieve the objectives of the
Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program (OGWRP).
Background on Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations
NRCS manages a program called the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations (WFPO or PL566). The
program was created in the 1950s to implement flood control measures and improve water
management throughout the country. The program is gaining attention from irrigation districts across
the Western United States as a mechanism to help modernize aging infrastructure and provide benefits
to farmers and ranchers.
The PL566 program has three distinct stages. The first being the Preliminary Investigation Findings
Report (PIFR) that NRCS will conduct to ensure the proposal meets the requirements of the PL566
program. The second phase is creating a Watershed Plan that lists the covered projects and allows for
the design and engineering of the project. The final phase is implementation of the covered projects as
defined by the Watershed Plan.
Watershed Plans are typically created in the form of an Environmental Assessment (EA) if PL566 will be
providing $25 million or less in construction funding. Projects receiving over $25 million must undergo
an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is a more detailed and rigorous process and requires
approval from Congress before construction funding becomes available.
A key advantage of the PL566 program is that NRCS covers 100% of the costs associated with the PIFR,
Watershed Plan, and project engineering. NRCS will then contribute 75% of the construction costs for
projects covered by the Watershed Plan. The remaining 25% can come from non-federal match such as
state or local funds.
OGWRP Watershed Plan Update
The ECBID was awarded $1 million through the PL566 to develop a Watershed Plan that will design and
implement large projects identified in the OGWRP. ECBID is pursuing a Watershed-EIS because the cost
of the project will approach several hundred million dollars. While the project is still in the early phases,
the district is implementing the Odessa Subarea Special Study's Preferred Alternative to deliver
groundwater replacement supplies to 70,000 acres. This will be done by improving irrigation
infrastructure and building eight piped and pressurized distributions systems that will include 73 miles of
One of the unique aspects of ECBID is that Reclamation developed an EIS several years ago to help the
district modernize and build out its system. The district, NRCS, and Reclamation are communicating with
one another to see if there is a way that NRCS can include Reclamation’s existing work related to the
existing EIS. This would reduce the need to do duplicative work and save considerable time and energy
for all stakeholders in the basin.
In recent years, irrigation districts across the West that include Washington, Montana, Oregon, and
Colorado have begun utilizing the PL566 program and are in various stages of the Watershed Planning
process or have successfully implemented projects. The upcoming 2023 Farm Bill is an opportunity to
take lessons learned in previous years and make improvements so the program can continue to support
western agricultural and the environment. Some of these changes include the following:
Raise Project Cap for Watershed-Environmental Assessment
In the last two years, inflation has considerably raised the cost of materials for irrigation projects. For
example, the cost of High Density Polyethylene pipe, a common material for piping canals, has increased
nearly 60%. This has pushed many of today’s projects to the $25 million cap while still requiring the 25%
match from non-federal sources. Districts are now faced with the choice of shrinking the scope of their
projects, reducing benefits to fall within the funding cap, or undergo a more complex review process
that can add significant time to developing the plan. Increasing the Watershed Plan-EA cap from $25 to
$50 million will allow districts to pursue projects that benefit both agricultural producers and the
environment without needing to spend additional time or resources on planning.
Farm Bill Recommendation: Raise the statutory cap for construction of projects from $25 million to $50
Prioritize Multi-Benefit Projects
The Watershed Plans that are coming out of the West are being developed in ways that increase the
efficacy of the funds allocated towards the WFPO program. Projects that can provide additional public
benefits, such as improvement of natural features for fish or wildlife habitat, mitigate drought impacts,
protect public safety, reduce flood risk, and improve water quality all provide for additional and long-
term benefits to the watershed and the taxpayer. Setting aside 60% of available WFPO funding for multi-
benefit projects will encourage the continued development of these plans and help authorized plans
secure funding for project construction.
Farm Bill Recommendation: Prioritize annual WFPO funding towards projects that provide multi-benefit
to agricultural producers, environment, and local communities.
Increase Mandatory Funding
The 2018 Farm Bill included $50 million in annual mandatory funding for the WFPO program. Congress
would then allocate additional funds into the program through the annual Appropriations process. The
growing interest in the WFPO program from organizations, such as ECBID, across the United States
shows that demand for funding is only going to increase. The WFPO program would benefit from
increasing the annual mandatory funding in the program by an additional $25 million. This will help
ensure a strong financial base in the program to support the development of new Watershed Plans and
Farm Bill Recommendation: Increase annual mandatory funding by $25 million to a total of $75 million
annually for the WFPO program.
State Conservationist Authority
Unfortunately, there is a movement to centralize decision making within NRCS HQ. An example of such
action occurred after passage of the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA). Projects that were in
the PIFR stage of development were allocated the majority of the IIJA funding for Watershed Planning
and construction activities. This sidestepping of the state offices’ can be detrimental and minimizes the
critical role State Conservationists play in assessing whether projects should advance from PIFR, to
Waterhsed Planning, and finally construction.
Maintaining local control over the WFPO decision making process is important to ensuring that the
program is utilized in the most efficient manner possible in each state. State Conservationists are best
suited to know the unique challenges in their respective states and should retain control over project
planning to ensure that Watershed Plans are developed to meet critical local needs. Congress needs to
clarify the authority of State Conservationists in the WFPO.
Farm Bill Recommendation: Give statutory authority to NRCS State Conservationists to review and
determine best course of action for watershed plans and projects that will be implemented in their
The OGWRP consists of 3 main stages:
1. Upgrades to create additional canal flow capacity that maximizes existing infrastructure.
2. Construction of lateral delivery systems to convey water from the East Low Canal to lands that are eligible under the OGWRP.
3. On-farm improvements to extend irrigation delivery to individual farms with cost efficiencies and conservation benefits.
There are many partners involved in this effort, and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District is proud to serve as the lead agency.
You can click on the title of the document to download the PDF.