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Officials keep comments close for now

Published on February 11, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on March 11, 2011 12:38PM

Bureau continues analysis based on comments, seeks further data


Capital Press

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials are reviewing the comments they received on a plan to expand the Columbia Basin Project to provide more irrigation water.

Currently, much of the water farmers and cities use in the Odessa subarea comes from deep wells, which cause the aquifers to decline.

A draft environmental impact statement released last fall outlines several options for replacing that ground water with water from the Columbia River.

The study examined those options, which include:

* Bringing 138,000 acre-feet of river water a year to the existing East Low Canal system with a 2.1-mile extension south of Interstate 90. It would cost a minimum of $728 million.

* Bringing 273,000 acre-feet of river water a year to the entire area by building a new East High canal. It would cost up to $2.6 billion.

Currently, the project supplies 2.65 million acre-feet of river water each year.

Wendy Christensen, technical projects program manager for the bureau, said the agency received a mixed response from people who made comments by the Jan. 31 deadline.

"I think we have both people that are for and people that are against the project," she said. "I think that's really typical."

The comments will become part of the final environmental impact statement.

Christensen said the bureau will continue its analysis based on the comments, requesting further information as needed.

Christensen said there are no plans to post the comments at this time. The comments will be included in the final environmental impact statement with response by the bureau, she said. Sometimes, comments could be one-sided or misinformed, and the bureau would like to avoid further confusion.

The bureau intends to have a final draft of the impact statement by fall. Christensen urges growers to stay tuned for the final report.

Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for the Columbia Basin Development League, said the closure of the comment period doesn't mean his organization is done.

The league will continue its efforts to educate the public and elected officials about the "looming economic and environmental crisis" resulting from the aquifer's depletion, he said. The league supports full replacement of groundwater with river water.

The study does not address how to pay for it, Schwisow noted.

"The solutions will be expensive," he said. "In the federal reclamation project, the costs to build those projects are recoverable costs to the United States."

The existing project was put together so that the federal government invested on the front end and farmers repaid over time, Schwisow said. The details of putting together funding and repayment will be addressed, he said.

In the meantime, farmers in the area are modifying their operations to offset declining water supplies. They're shifting production practices, changing their rotations and selecting different crops to grow, Schwisow said.


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