Interior Alan Mikkelsen

Alan Mikkelsen, a senior adviser to the secretary of interior, addresses stakeholders during the Columbia Basin Development League annual meeting Oct. 29 in Moses Lake, Wash.

MOSES LAKE, Wash. — Alan Mikkelsen likes maps.

Mikkelsen, a senior adviser to the secretary of the interior on water and western resource issues, said he has 24 maps on display in his  Denver, Colo., office, including maps of the Columbia Basin and Yakima Basin.

And he has one that supporters of the federal Columbia Basin Project might find particularly encouraging.

"One of the maps I have in my office that I'm particularly proud of — that I actually pull down once in a while to think about in the 'what could be' or 'what could have been' category — is a tiny little facility in the Columbia River Basin called East High Canal," he revealed to applause as he spoke during the Columbia Basin Development League annual meeting Oct. 29 in Moses Lake, Wash.

"I still consider that to be in the 'what could have been, should have been and maybe some day it can be' category," Mikkelsen said.

The East High Canal is the long-discussed second half of the federal Columbia Basin Project.

The project delivers water to 671,000 acres of farmland, roughly 65% of the 1.03 million acres originally planned.

In the mid-1970s, the Washington Department of Ecology allowed farmers in the Odessa Subarea to drill irrigation wells. The wells were to provide water until another portion of the project, the East High Canal, was built.

But the canal was never built.

Instead, groundwater pumping continued. Today, those wells are running out of water.

The problem was the cost. Building the East High Canal was a consideration in the Odessa Subarea study, but it came with a price tag of $1 billion to $2 billion at the time.

Cost of the entire project, including the East High Canal, would be roughly $4.4 billion, said Ritzville, Wash., farmer Michele Kiesz, a trustee for the league and Adams County representative on the Washington Association of Wheat Growers board.

"I was very excited to hear that he hasn't given up on the project itself," Kiesz said of Mikkelsen's comments.

Efforts continue to garner support for the East High Canal at the federal level.

Keisz noticed a difference in the atmosphere during the league meeting.

"People are actually starting to talk about the East High again," she said. "In my mind, that's very encouraging, because for so long talking about the East High was almost considered a dirty word."

Kiesz believes the Trump administration sees the benefits of the project, and the agricultural economic engine that the canal could be.

"It's unfortunate that we had to wait until this became such a critical state of emergency for us and these 22 communities," she said.

Communities at risk include Odessa, Lind, Othello, Davenport, Ritzville, Harrington and Moses Lake, she said.

Approximately 200,000 people are at risk, according to the state, she said.

During discussions with the Office of Budget Management, that $4 billion price tag was considered out of range, Kiesz said.

But she said the project would generate the same amount once it was up and running.

"You're investing in something that will make that much money in one year," she said, noting supporters aren't asking for $4 billion in one lump sum. "This will be built over a period of time."

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