Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Reclamation’s Successes in the Pacific Northwest

Lorri Gray, the director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Columbia–Pacific Northwest Region, has been working for the agency since high school. With experience working for Reclamation in Nevada; Washington, DC; and Idaho in a wide range of positions, Director Gray knows the agency inside and out.

In this interview with Irrigation Leader, Director Gray discusses Reclamation’s recent steps to address the Odessa groundwater area, the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (YBIP), and the Columbia River Treaty.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and career with Reclamation.

Lorri Gray: I have been with Reclamation for 37 years, serving in the Lower Colorado Region; the Washington, DC, office; and most recently in the Columbia–Pacific Northwest Region. Prior to being named the Columbia–Pacific Northwest regional director in 2012, I served as the Lower Colorado regional director from 2007 to 2011.

I was born and raised in Cortez, Colorado, and moved to Boulder City, Nevada, where I began working as a student in Reclamation’s employee development office while still in high school. I worked in the human resources office across numerous business lines until I moved to Washington, DC, in 1998. I was offered the liaison position in DC, which I held for 2 years. Then I moved back to Boulder City to become an assistant regional director and later served as the deputy regional director for Bob Johnson, a man whom I admire and respect. After negotiating the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, I was able to spend almost 2 years standing up that program and ensuring it was fully operational. When Bob Johnson moved to DC in 2007 to serve as the commissioner of Reclamation, I moved into the regional director position.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the significance of the recently signed contract with East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID) for the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program.

Lorri Gray: The Odessa area, located in central Washington, is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the state of Washington. Agricultural production in Washington State totaled $10.6 billion in 2017. Washington is the second-leading producer of potatoes in the United States. In 2018, Washington’s potato crop alone was valued at $788 million. Much of that was grown in the Odessa area.

Regional Director Lorri Gray signs the renewal master water service contract with East Columbia Basin Irrigation District.

Much of the agricultural land in the Odessa area is irrigated using groundwater, but unfortunately, the aquifer in the region is declining. The Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program comprises eight systems with seven pumping plants and laterals that will bring water to farms east of the East Low Canal. Its main goal is to get water on the ground as quickly as possible to support the Washington State Department of Ecology in reducing pressure on the declining aquifer and to support the district’s efforts to provide more reliable surface irrigation water to landowners who are currently irrigating with groundwater.

The renewal master water service contract is a great opportunity for ECBID, the State of Washington, and Reclamation to work together on an aquifer rescue program. We are now able to move forward on the delivery of surface water to up to 70,000 acres of irrigated land that are now surviving on groundwater. That will provide relief to the aquifer and help sustain it for farmers who are unable to move to surface water. It also helps the small towns, communities, and food processors who rely on the aquifer for their water supply. 

I want to commend the State of Washington and ECBID for their proactivity and perseverance in moving this project forward. The infrastructure needed for this project is primarily funded by the State of Washington and the irrigators; Reclamation contributed funding to design and construction. This effort is a good example of a public-private investment model, involving both the state and federal governments.

Irrigation Leader: How does this contract compare to other contracts Reclamation has signed in recent years in terms of size?

Lorri Gray: This contract with ECBID is double the size of other master water service contracts Reclamation has approved over the past 40 years. Not only is it a large contract, it also provides some unique opportunities for conservation. The district will potentially be able to supply an additional 20,000 acres using conserved water. This contract was possible thanks to the big-picture thinking of Derek Sanderson, Bill Gray, and Gary Kelso, as well as the hard work and diligence of Craig Simpson, Tom Tebb, and Dawn Wiedmeier. They have been instrumental in moving this contract forward and have demonstrated what we can accomplish working together. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the importance of the YBIP.

Lorri Gray: The YBIP is a distinctive model that is truly a success. The YBIP gives everyone something and nobody everything. It has brought environmental groups, water users, and the Yakama Nation together to meet the needs of all by conserving water and addressing drought and fishery needs. It’s a project with grassroots support and has thrived because everyone has bought into each other’s needs from an interest-based standpoint; we’ve realized that as a group, they can achieve much more. Participants have been able to set aside their differences and focus on the greater good. It’s really a productive model!

Irrigation Leader: What are your thoughts on title transfer?

Lorri Gray: Title transfer is in a better place today than I’ve ever seen it. With the recently passed legislation, irrigation districts that are interested in taking title can now move through the process in a much smoother, more efficient way. The process requires conducting land appraisals, various land surveys, and cultural work. However, districts may be able to use the overarching statute, eliminating the need for specific legislation. Any districts that are thinking about title transfer should contact us to explore the possibilities. Taking title allows districts to broaden their destinies and control economic decisions tied to their infrastructure as well as future operational decisions. It’s a win for irrigation districts, it’s a win for end users, and it’s a win for taxpayers. We have at least three transfers that we are hoping to complete in 2020—and maybe more. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you also provide us with an update on the Columbia River Treaty? 

Lorri Gray: The United States and Canada are working to modernize the Columbia River Treaty regime, including determining how post-2024 changes in the treaty are implemented. This initiative is being led by the State Department and the negotiating team includes representatives from the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. team is focused and working well together. We have held eight negotiating rounds with Canada since May 2018, covering a variety of topics including flood risk management, hydropower, ecosystem cooperation, and adaptive management. The conversations have been productive and frank and are contributing to our efforts to modernize this treaty regime in a way that benefits both countries. We are using the regional recommendation that was developed in 2013 as a guide in these negotiations. While I can’t talk about the details, I will tell you that the negotiating team is working hard on behalf of the United States. You can find additional information at www.state. gov/columbia-river-treaty/. 

Irrigation Leader: What should every member of the Columbia Basin Development League (CBDL) know about Reclamation? 

Lorri Gray: Reclamation is interested in partnering with CBDL, and we appreciate the solid communication work that CBDL is doing. Reclamation and CBDL share the need and desire to work together to address aging infrastructure, build new infrastructure, and increase water reliability across the Columbia basin. I appreciate the role played by CBDL and see its positive influence in this basin. 

Irrigation Leader: What should every Reclamation water user in the Columbia–Pacific Northwest Region know about Reclamation? 

Lorri Gray: Water users should know a couple of things. First, the leadership in the Columbia–Pacific Northwest Region is focused on infrastructure and ensuring that infrastructure is ready to meet their needs. Second, Reclamation is looking for opportunities to increase the reliability of the water supply in this changing world. Both actions are included in Commissioner Brenda Burman’s priorities for Reclamation. Additionally, we are focused on streamlining compliance activities so that we meet federal requirements while minimizing the cost and time required. Last but not least, our regional leadership team is working to build a workforce for the next 30 years. We have talented and committed people coming up in our ranks, and they are helping us do great things today. 

Lorri Gray is director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Columbia–Pacific Northwest Region. She can be contacted at lgray@usbr.gov or 208-378-5013.