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circular logo used by the East Columbia Basin Irrigation district with a canal full of water underneath a sun




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 piped canals.

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.

PL566 and the Farm Bill

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 million.

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 project construction.  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 respective states.

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.

Partners Include:

  • Washington State Department of Ecology
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service
  • Grant County Conservation District
  • Columbia Basin Development League

More info can be found here: https://www.ogwrp-programs.org/

circular logo used by the East Columbia Basin Irrigation district with a canal full of water underneath a sun
logo used by the Bureau of Reclamation
logo used by the Columbia Basin development League
logo used by the grant county conservation district
logo used by the department of ecology
logo used by the USDA United States department of Agriculture


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