We must act now to finish the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project or eat dust

Agriculture accounts for $51 billion of Washington’s economy. Much of it comes from the Columbia Basin. Grain, alfalfa, silage crops, dry beans, wheat, apples, wine grapes and other fruit, sugar beets, corn, potatoes, seed and some specialty crops grown in the Basin, along with large herds of dairy cows, beef cattle and other livestock, support thousands of jobs, small businesses, food processors and a rural quality of life where thousands of families proudly call home.

It’s easy to forget it’s been this way for only a relatively short time, evolving over the past 75 years. The Columbia Plateau was once a dusty, dry and laborious place to live. Pioneer farmers knew the rich soil had potential, but average rainfall was less than 10 inches annually. Dryland farming was challenging. Remnants of barns and other abandoned buildings scatter across areas of the Basin, left behind by farmers who gave up for lack of moisture.

Thanks to the foresight of very forward thinkers, more than 671,000 acres came alive in the early 1950s due to the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. Water brought this area to life, pumped into Banks Lake from Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam and distributed to the south across the plateau through more than 300 miles of canals, 2,000 miles of laterals, and 3,500 miles of drains.

The original project called for a much larger area of canals to irrigate the full 1,100,000 acres in the plateau, but that expansion waned in the 1960s. The eastern portion of the project across the Odessa subaquifer was never completed. Instead, the Department of Ecology issued deep well permits in those areas to provide water temporarily.

For 50 years, those wells have sustained agriculture, food processing, jobs and families in those communities. However, those wells are drying up. There isn’t enough water to replenish them.

Today, we stand at the precipice of the largest economic and humanitarian decision in Eastern Washington since water began flowing through the western portion of the Columbia Basin Project in 1952. Do we allow Odessa subaquifer wells to run dry, including the municipal water supplies of Lind, Ritzville, Harrington, and even Moses Lake? Or do we enact the same foresight as the original planners and complete the remaining 429,000 acres of the Columbia Basin Project?

There are only two choices. Water or dust.

I’ve been to the White House four times in the past year to make the case for Columbia Basin water infrastructure. I’ve met with key officials in President Trump’s cabinet who agree this project must move forward. President Trump signed my map of the project area and indicated his support. We have his attention.
We now need the federal government to step up with significant funding. Congressman Dan Newhouse is working with us to move this ahead. However, the state of Washington must demonstrate its commitment to the project first.

I’ve introduced House Bill 1889. Sen. Jim Honeyford has introduced Senate Bill 5136. These measures seek the bonding authority of $500 million to show the federal government our commitment and provide the state’s share of the cost to get the project underway.

We’ve testified before the House Capital Budget Committee and the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee about the critical need to move forward now while we have the support of the Trump Administration.

We are fighting for the future of Eastern Washington, but legislative deadlines are approaching as we try to convince reluctant Seattle-area majority legislators for water funding on our side of the Cascades.

Very simply, we need your help. Call the toll-free legislative hotline – 1-800-562-6000. Ask the Speaker, the Senate majority leader and the members of these House and Senate committees to support these bills.

Generations of eastern Columbia Basin families are at stake. Let us choose water, not dust.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, serves the 9th Legislative District, and is a member of the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

State Representative Mary Dye, 9th Legislative District
432 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7942 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000