By MATTHEW WEAVER
Supporters of a plan to provide Columbia River water to irrigators in the Odessa area of Washington state have reached a milestone in their efforts but now the big issue is obtaining the $827 million needed to complete the project.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Washington State Department of Ecology this week issued the Odessa Subarea Special Study final environmental impact statement.
In it, the agencies identified a preferred alternative to enlarge the East Low Canal and develop distribution to deliver water from the canal to farmlands.
Mike Schwisow, Columbia Basin Development League director of government relations, said the 2,000-page report is a "major milestone" seven years in the making.
"This is a report that says it's feasible to continue, and now we move from environmental review to all the planning necessary to start construction," he said.
Derek Sandison, director of Ecology's Office of the Columbia River, said the state and bureau will provide about 10 percent of the funding, focused on East Low Canal improvements.
Ninety percent of the project costs will be paid by irrigators through local improvement districts or loans. That portion of the project will include construction of pumping plants and pipelines.
The bureau will file an application for a secondary use permit for the water, Sandison said. About 164,000 acre-feet of water is needed. Reclamation has a 1938 diversion and storage right. The water is stored, so no other water right holders or applicants will be affected, Sandison said.
Irrigators are working to raise funding, Sandison said. Ecology will ask the state Legislature for its share of the funding in January.
The plan will provide river water to approximately 70,000 acres of irrigated farmland that now uses groundwater. Wells in the area are running out of water, making the switch necessary.
The National Environmental Policy Act process for the project concludes with a record of decision issued by the bureau 30 days after the final impact statement is published in the Federal Register.
Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area executive director Paul Stoker expects construction to begin on the East Low Canal next year.
The Center for Environmental Law and Policy criticized the plan, citing concerns in a press release that the water will come from an over-allocated river, lack of government transparency and calling it an attempt to "upstage" Columbia River Treaty negotiations by diverting more water out of the river prior to talks.
Center staff attorney Rachael Paschal Osborn said the center hasn't yet decided whether to file a lawsuit.
"The bureau can't really proceed with this project unless it gets funded," she said, noting Congress would have to be convinced the project deserves funding. "I think there is a real question at this point whether the project can actually go forward."