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Originally published Thursday, September 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Diminishing water supply threatens E. Washington farmers

Without water, the Columbia Basin region would look like the sagebrush-covered desert it was before farmers and irrigators transformed it...

Special to The Times

Without water, the Columbia Basin region would look like the sagebrush-covered desert it was before farmers and irrigators transformed it into some of the top-producing farmland in the United States. Thanks to water, 119 crops are grown in the Columbia Basin. In fact, Grant, Franklin and Adams counties are the first-, second- and fifth-largest potato-producing counties in the U.S.

But this region's future is endangered because of its diminishing water supply. Much of the region relies on the vast Odessa sub-area aquifer for its water. But more water is being withdrawn from the aquifer than is being recharged.

Wells in the sub-area are drying up or seeing a significant reduction in output due to the aquifer's dropping water table — as much as 400 feet since the 1960s. In fact, some wells are 2,000 feet deep. Farmers and people in area communities can't afford to continue drilling deeper for water because it's so expensive.

First, some history. After Congress authorized it, the Columbia Basin Project (CBP) was started in the early 1930s to irrigate nearly 1.1 million acres in the basin, with the first irrigation water delivered in the early 1950s. However, only about 600,000 acres (phase one) have been developed.

The remaining area, found east of Moses Lake and Othello and between Connell and Odessa, has depended on the Odessa aquifer for its water supply since the 1960s.

The plan was to allow temporary wells for withdrawals from the aquifer until phase two of the CBP was completed. Unfortunately, this expansion hasn't occurred. Now, 40 years later, the aquifer is drying up.

This could affect hundreds of families and businesses throughout this region, not to mention municipal water supplies in communities depending on the aquifer.

The loss of water would decimate property values in this area. In fact, such dry land could be worth only one-tenth of irrigated property, making farmers' land both unproductive and almost worthless, and negatively impacting surrounding communities.

The Columbia Basin's economy would be devastated without water. About 35,000 acres of potatoes are grown in the Odessa sub-area, and the crop's annual economic impact is nearly $630 million and about 3,600 jobs. Most of these jobs are found in rural towns like Moses Lake and Othello. Without irrigation, the potato industry there and its jobs would vanish.

This water crisis also would hurt the state's tax revenue situation, since agriculture there is a major revenue producer. Furthermore, jobs will be lost in Western Washington, since millions of dollars in crops that are grown in the Odessa aquifer area are exported through the ports in Seattle and Tacoma to Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Short-term solutions have emerged, but a long-term fix must be found and implemented before the aquifer is depleted. The logical solution to stop the aquifer's depletion is to begin completion of the Columbia Basin Project so surface water could be substituted for the groundwater on which many irrigators and communities above the Odessa aquifer now rely.

A resource-exchange solution would reduce groundwater pumping dramatically and allow the aquifer to recharge over time, while also protecting the economy of Adams, Franklin, Grant and Lincoln counties.

This is not about requesting new water rights. In fact, the Odessa aquifer's water users are part of the Columbia Basin Project's water right — one of the state's oldest water rights — and it's actually referred to in state statute.

Some might argue that starting the second phase of this project will harm the Columbia River's stream flows, and thus fish. But the completion of the CBP would result in less than a 1-percent decrease of the Columbia River's flow at The Dalles, Ore. — hardly a dangerous scenario for fish in the river.

Two years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rescinded a 1993 moratorium placed by the bureau and the state Department of Ecology on any additional water withdrawals from the Columbia River to protect salmon under the Endangered Species Act.

With the water moratorium lifted, there is a renewed effort to begin completion of the CBP. Finishing this ambitious irrigation project will be expensive, possibly as high as $1 billion. But the cost to this region and the state will be greater if the project isn't finished.

In the past, our state and federal governments have been partners on Columbia Basin irrigation projects. Such a partnership is needed again. The state alone can't pay for this project.

Our state and federal governments need to act fast to begin work on the second half of the Columbia Basin Project so the Odessa aquifer can be replenished. If this aquifer is allowed to dry up, the economies of many rural communities in Eastern Washington could be doomed.

State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is a farmer and the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee.

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