RITZVILLE, Wash. — Farmer Eli Stahl, two of his sons, two brothers and a nephew were harvesting hard red winter wheat on a recent July morning.
Several nephews drove trucks, collecting wheat from the busy combines.
“It’s all in the family,” said Stahl, 58, treasurer of the Ritzville, Wash., Hutterian brethren, a faith-based group that farms together and has about 100 members.
For the Hutterians and their neighboring farmers, it’s also all about water.
Fifty wells provide water to their 16,000 acres of farmland, but the quantity and quality of the irrigation water they provide is in doubt.
The wells were originally 1,500 feet deep.
Today, they are 2,700 feet deep — and that’s not deep enough for some.
“We’ve had to drill every well we’ve got on the farm deeper and deeper and deeper,” Stahl said. “All you’re doing is getting the hot water, which is very high in sodium.”
About 10 of the wells have been shut down because they didn’t draw any water, Stahl said.
Farmers in the Odessa Subarea were originally told to rely on groundwater until the Columbia Basin Project, which supplies water from the Columbia River, was finished. Now a slimmed-down version of the project is under construction, but the groundwater is running out.
Until they can obtain more irrigation water through a key agreement with the federal government that will bring more water to their land, they and other farmers in the Odessa Subarea say they are at risk.
These days, the Hutterians stretch their irrigation water, getting a yield of 80 bushels of wheat per acre.
If more water were available, Stahl estimates the yields would jump to 130 to 140 bushels.
But if the water were to run out, yields would drop to 25 to 35 bushels an acre, he says.
Roughly two-thirds of the Hutterians’ farmland is planted to wheat, which at current prices doesn’t cover expenses.
They would prefer to grow more potatoes, which are higher in value, but can’t because they don’t have enough water.
The economics of potatoes are far more lucrative.
A farmer typically grosses $5,000 per acre for irrigated potatoes, said Dale Lathim, executive director of the Potato Growers of Washington. If the farmer owns the land and grows an average crop, he should make $600-$700 per acre profit.
A farmer raising wheat receives about $460 per acre gross, and $100 per acre profit.
Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, says any additional potato acreage would be welcome.
“We can now only grow roughly 165,000 to 170,000 acres per year” in Washington, he said.
The state exports 70% of its crop. For the last six to seven years, overseas customers have been on “rations,” Voigt said.
Washington’s spud exports go up 2% each year, but demand goes up 7% each year, he said.
Expanded Oregon production helps, but the only way to get more Washington acreage is to bring in more Columbia River water for irrigation, he said.
To replace their dwindling well water, the Hutterians want to tap into an expanded distribution system to get water from the Columbia River. Stahl said the critical time to get water to the farm was “at least five years ago.”
“It’s getting to the point where it’s a do-or-die situation,” he said. “You’re either farming or you’re out of farming.”
Stahl and the Hutterians aren’t alone. About 150 landowners on 102,000 acres in the Odessa Subarea are losing access to groundwater due to declining aquifers, and are eligible to participate in the groundwater replacement program.
They are waiting for approval of a master water service contract between the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, which will distribute the water, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which will supply it from the Columbia River.
The irrigation district originally set a cap of $190 per acre per year for 30 years as the landowners’ share of construction costs.
But the costs the irrigation district has seen from the bureau so far have exceeded the cap.
Negotiations over the master service contract began in 2016.
“The contract is crucial to make any more progress; everything is stalled without it,” said Jed Crowther, the irrigation district’s development coordinator.
Both sides say they want to get the contract right. Reclamation has offered several draft contracts but not one that the irrigation district’s staff can recommend to its board, said Nate Andreini, district engineer.
“This is a high priority for Reclamation,” bureau spokeswoman Edna Rey-Vizigardas said. “We are devoting all the required resources and staff to this process and are hopeful we can reach agreement with the district very soon.”
Work on four or five of the eight planned delivery systems could begin to ramp up quickly once the contract is signed, Andreini said.
So far, the state has invested a little more than $100 million in the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program, including $36 million to increase the capacity of the critical East Low Canal, which currently serves more than 1,000 farmers.
Other projects and grants include a conservation program, the environmental impact statement, a pump station and delivery systems and a grant for the EL 22.1 water system, which will tap into the expanded canal.
The irrigation district is now building the last two siphons, Kansas Prairie Nos. 1 and 2. They will dramatically increase its flow.
The district calls it a “major milestone” that will add the capacity needed to serve an additional 87,700 acres of farmland. Construction is slated to be completed by next spring.
The district also continues to work on the EL 47.5 delivery system, scheduled for start-up next April.
Several other irrigation groups have also pursued a memorandum of understanding to obtain water once it becomes available.
The EL 22.1 Landowner Association recently was formed to manage a $15 million state grant for its delivery system. Eight farmers are on the board, including Stahl, who also serves as its treasurer.
Other landowners are also likely to form nonprofits to accept state or federal grants, said Brian Kuest, general manager of the EL 22.1 Association.
“We’re kind of the guinea pig here to see how it’s going to work moving forward,” Kuest said.
Kuest hopes to have an engineering firm begin work on designing the system by the end of the year. If all goes well, those landowners should receive water by 2021.
Long way to go
Andreini, the irrigation district’s engineer, estimates that so far 10% to 15% of the total project is completed.
“There’s still a long way to go, but the parts we have done are logically the parts that need to be done in order to even build the delivery systems,” he said.
Four years ago, the cost of completing the entire project was estimated at $200 million.
“That number is too low, now,” Andreini said.
The delivery systems have many factors to consider — the number of acres, the design, how they will operate, funding — making them “far more complex than the improvements to the canal we’ve made so far,” he said.
And those improvements have not been small jobs. Andreini said the district removed 3 million yards of earth from the canal to widen it.
“These delivery systems, there’s complex machinery in there,” he said. “They have to be laid out in a way that we can operate them reliably.”
Even with a cap on the cost of expanding the canal, there’s the cost of constructing the delivery systems and yearly water fees, Crowther said. This year the water fee is $65.90 per acre.
Farmers would love to receive water for less, but that doesn’t seem likely, Stahl said.
Overall construction costs have been “normalized,” meaning the farmer right next to the canal on a delivery system will pay the same as the farmer at the end of the line.
The next step is designing the delivery systems to get the water from the canal to the farms. That requires coordination between the design team, the bureau and landowners.
“If you want to design a delivery system that costs $70 million, $80 million, $90 million, expect to pay $5 million for a design,” Andreini said. “Divide that up between the landowners and it’s less when you spread it out over the acres, but it’s not a small dollar amount.”
Cost of materials has also increased. Every time the district goes to a supplier for bids, they come in higher than the original estimates.
The irrigation district has the authority to issue tax-exempt municipal revenue bonds to pay for construction. The bonds, which are similar to loans, will be repaid through landowners’ water service contract payments.
“Affordability continues to be a big issue; some landowners can’t participate at this level,” Crowther, the irrigation district’s development coordinator, said. “Hence, the outreach for supplemental funding” from other sources such as the state and federal governments.
Wells in the region continue to fail, said Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for the Columbia Basin Development League. The ideal time to get things done is “as soon as possible,” he said.
The actual time it takes to do the project depends on federal funding, grants for bridge widening or replacement, state participation and landowners willing to invest in the system, he said.
The project has received a little more than $63 million in federal funding to date.
The East Low Canal lies about 6 miles from where Stahl and his family were harvesting wheat.
It wouldn’t take long to get water to the farm once the bureau and district agree on a contract, Stahl said.
“I put a lot of pipe in the ground in my days, and it really does not take that long,” he said.
Farmers might get an idea and put it to work the next day, Stahl said.
Not so with the federal government, he said.
“It’s a waiting game,” he said “If we had an absolute number when this water is going to be available, then we could do something, but we don’t even have that number.”
The bureau and district next meet Aug. 16.
“We’re so close to the master water service contract,” Stahl said. “But it’s been so close for five years now.”