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Washington drains water funding, replenishment uncertain

Washington has nearly drained the $200 million it set aside a decade ago to find water for Eastern Washington. State officials see the need for millions, if not billions more.
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on February 12, 2016 4:35PM

Office of Columbia River Director Tom Tebb listens during a meeting Feb. 12 in Lacey, Wash., of the Columbia River Policy Advisory Group. State lawmakers gave the office $200 million a decade ago to pursue new water supplies. The money is almost gone, and Tebb says the state must decide how much it will invest to continue the pursuit.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

Office of Columbia River Director Tom Tebb listens during a meeting Feb. 12 in Lacey, Wash., of the Columbia River Policy Advisory Group. State lawmakers gave the office $200 million a decade ago to pursue new water supplies. The money is almost gone, and Tebb says the state must decide how much it will invest to continue the pursuit.

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LACEY, Wash. — The $200 million the Legislature dedicated a decade ago to develop new water supplies for Eastern Washington has been nearly exhausted, leaving the state with no long-term plan to complete projects that have been years in the planning, a Department of Ecology official told an advisory group Thursday.

“We have come to a moment where we have to figure out where we go from here,” Office of Columbia River Director Tom Tebb said. “We’re at a key point in the program’s life.”

The office opened in 2006 with the broad mandate to “aggressively pursue” new water supplies. The office has spent all but $7 million of the original appropriation.

Although little water has actually reached farmers, storage and conservation projects are on the cusp of delivering, Tebb said. “We want to see it through,” he said.

Irrigators will have to pay much of the cost for new pipelines and pumps, and the federal government may help fund some projects, particularly in the Yakima River Basin.

DOE, however, has identified hundreds of millions of dollars worth of water projects dependent on additional state funding.

Unless lawmakers commit to another major funding package, the projects will be funded piecemeal in biennial budgets.

The current budget, approved last year, included $30 million for water projects in the Yakima River Basin. DOE estimates the projects will cost $900 million over the next 10 years and $3.8 billion over 30 years.

Several members of DOE’s Columbia River Policy Advisory Group, which represents federal and state agencies, counties, tribes and irrigators, said they preferred Washington’s water policy to be guided by big-picture objectives backed by long-term financing.

Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell said relying on annual budget appropriations will pit water projects against other capital projects.

“We end up competing every single year with pet projects that legislators have in their districts,” he said.

Two Republican senators, Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside and John Braun of Centralia, last year proposed funding major water projects with a statewide property tax increase.

In presenting the measure, advocates focused on agriculture in the Yakima River Basin, flood prevention in the Chehalis River Basin and pollution control in the Puget Sound. Despite the broad alliance, the plan had too little support to justify a statewide tax increase.

The House subsequently set up a task force to look at funding options. Staff members compiled a long list of taxes that could be raised or implemented to raise $3 billion in 10 years. The task force didn’t make any recommendation before disbanding.

“A comprehensive package is a good idea. The challenge is funding it. Who wants to provide the revenue?” Washington Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer John Stuhlmiller said.

Tebb said he’s seen no revival of interest during the current legislative session. “There’s been no real momentum for a bill,” he said.

The DOE and irrigation districts hope Congress will provide up to half the money for the Yakima River plan, though congressional support is uncertain. Conservation groups and homeowners associations oppose the plan, characterizing it as a costly and environmentally damaging hedge against droughts.

So far, 2,000 acres in the Odessa Subarea in Adams, Grant, Franklin and Lincoln counties have been switched from groundwater to the Columbia River, a main goal of the 2006 legislation that set up the Office of Columbia River.

Several thousand more acres may be converted for the upcoming growing season. Eventually, as many as 87,000 acres are to be taken off the stressed Odessa aquifer. Individual farmers now on groundwater must decide whether it’s worth paying to build and maintain pipelines and pumps to tap into water stored in Banks Lake.



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