The East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID), based in Othello, Washington, is one of the three districts that form the Columbia Basin Project (CBP). Since 2001, the ECBID has played a major role in implementing the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP), an initiative to build out the CBP to its full dimensions and bring surface water to the Odessa subarea, where ostensibly temporary groundwater pumping has begun to seriously deplete the local aquifer. In this interview, ECBID Secretary-Manager Craig Simpson tells us about the planning, funding, and execution of OGWRP.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Craig Simpson: I’ve been the secretary-manager at the ECBID since Dick Erickson retired in 2007. I had previously been the district engineer since 1995. Prior to that, after graduating from college, I did a 5‑year stint at a small consulting engineering firm in Poulsbo, Washington, called ADA Engineering. I was hired when the ECBID was looking for some municipal points of view on the system, a niche I was able to fill.
Irrigation Leader: In recent years, the ECBID has done significant work to bring surface water to the Odessa subarea to replace the use of groundwater by irrigators. Please tell us more about this project.
Craig Simpson: We are just one of the entities working on the solution for Odessa. A lot of the early work was done by the Washington Department of Ecology through its Office of Columbia River (OCR) in conjunction with the Bureau of Reclamation. The ECBID involvement started in 2001, when we began a successful pilot program with Ecology and Reclamation to find conservation water supplies to replace the groundwater in Odessa. Then, we moved on to the CBP Coordinated Conservation Program with the Quincy–Columbia Basin Irrigation District and the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District (SCBID), which resulted in a total of 10,000 acres of groundwater replacement supplies. The Lake Roosevelt Incremental Releases Program was also developed, freeing up another 10,000 acres of water supply from Lake Roosevelt. Ultimately, the big push was another 70,000 acres, resulting from the Odessa Subarea Special Study done by Ecology and Reclamation. All combined, OGWRP involves 90,000 acres of CBP groundwater replacement.
When the preferred alternative came out of the record of decision for the Odessa Subarea Special Study, the federal government decided that it did not want to develop the project, because it was on the low side of the 1:1 cost-benefit ratio and because Reclamation is not really doing major infrastructure development anymore. Our board of directors decided, after consulting with staff, that we would take on the implementation of the preferred alternative as part of the implementation of OGWRP.
All along, our efforts in Odessa have been a partnership. The Columbia River Initiative, which started in 2004, included all three CBP irrigation districts, the State of Washington, and Reclamation. The ECBID is the entity that is best known for OGWRP, but all of us were involved with it from the beginning. Right now, we’re finally starting to see significant payoff from the efforts that have been made. OGWRP efforts started in 2001, and in 2005, as a result of the pilot program, we transferred 2,361 acres of land from groundwater to the CBP water supply. From 2013 to today, we have done the same thing to an additional 15,000 acres. The total area that we’re trying to put onto CBP supply is 90,000 acres. We’re not there yet, but we’ve definitely made good progress, and we have a lot of momentum.
Irrigation Leader: By about how much have you reduced yearly groundwater pumping from the Odessa aquifer?
Craig Simpson: By close to 45,000 acre-feet—that’s the amount of water that we’re delivering, so it no longer needs to be taken from the Odessa aquifer.
Irrigation Leader: You have done a majority of the construction work in house by growing staff and acquiring equipment, correct?
Craig Simpson: We’ve always maintained a workforce that is pretty proficient at concrete work, pipeline installation, and equipment operation. When it came time to do these projects, we recognized that at times we were getting money that needed to be used within a limited time frame. We didn’t have an extra 3–4 months of procurement time to get a contractor. We took a careful look at the expertise of the team and realized that we could do most of this work in house. This created efficiencies, saving the district time and landowners money. As a public organization, we don’t have to worry about profits like an outside contractor has to. We’re just trying to do what we need to do to be as efficient and effective as possible, and one of those things is to do projects productively and use our funds pragmatically.
Irrigation Leader: How much money have you saved by doing the work in house?
Craig Simpson: That’s difficult to answer. We did all the earth work and a lot of the concrete work and gate installation, but we did have contractors install five large-diameter concrete siphon structures. The cost savings on the siphon job resulted from the district doing project management rather than having Reclamation do it. Reclamation’s initial cost estimate for the initial East Low Canal expansion work was $58 million, but we were able to do it for $26 million. That showed that we were efficient with the monies that were available for our upcoming projects within OGWRP. I can’t tell you what the comparison of the estimates for the installation of the distribution lines for the 47.5 pumping plant are, but we also did some of that work with district crews and equipment, and I’m fairly certain that that also resulted in significant cost savings for our landowners. We also did most of the design work for that project in house, although we did have some assistance from Reclamation on the designs for the siphons, because it had done the initial designs for the Weber site. The work on the 47.5 delivery system was all done in house, with the exception of a little bit of assistance on electrical work and cathodic protection that was done by an outside consulting firm.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your 47.5 pumping plant.
Craig Simpson: The 47.5 is our first big delivery system in Odessa. We put it online and started functional testing on it in August 2020. We started commercial, or contractual, deliveries of water in April, at the beginning of our 2021 water delivery season, and it’s been online since then. We deliver to 8,523 acres out of the 10,500 acres that the system is designed for. The system pumps about 140 cubic feet per second (cfs) at about 350 feet of total dynamic head and provides delivery at a minimum of 10 pounds per square inch to all 15 delivery points on the system. Just five separate landowners own the 8,523 acres we are delivering to, which shows the size of the farms in Odessa that we’re trying to bring replacement water to.
The name of the EL 47.5 Delivery System refers to the fact that it is located 47.5 miles from the point at which the East Low Canal bifurcates from the CBP main canal. It’s a fairly common convention to name laterals off the main canal by their mile posts along the East Low Canal.
Irrigation Leader: What did you learn from the building of 47.5 that may help save money or time on your future pump plants?
Craig Simpson: One of the first things we learned is that the federal process by which a nonfederal entity has to build federal infrastructure is convoluted and does not envision federal infrastructure being built this way. It requires a bunch of superfluous activities, and it’s cumbersome, to say the least. We learned a lot about that from the building of 47.5, and we’re approaching our future designs differently in the hope that we can move through the process more cleanly than we did on the first round.
Irrigation Leader: How many plants do you intend to build?
Craig Simpson: The answer to that is fluid, because it depends on what lands we are going to deliver to and who wants to participate. It’s a voluntary program with no edicts about where it has to go. We are currently looking at 9 delivery systems, but I expect there to be 15 or more as we get toward the end. There could easily be other systems that are necessary for smaller locations of 1,000 or 2,000 acres that would result in smaller pumping plants along the way. I think that will occur as time goes on and people move water to different locations.
Irrigation Leader: Where has the funding for this infrastructure come from, and where will the additional funds needed to complete your nine pumping plants come from?
Craig Simpson: The project has had different funding sources over time. The costs for the studies from 2006 to 2013 were split between the state and the federal government. As we have moved into development, the funding has predominantly come from the State of Washington through the OCR, which has provided significant construction grants of more than $79.5 million. The OCR gave us the initial funding for the widening of the siphons and for radial gates, and it is now supporting the development of the delivery systems. It has put significant funding into the designs of the 22.1 and 79.2 delivery systems.
There has been relatively less funding from the federal government—sometimes $1–2 million over a 2‑year period. That is a lot less, and there have been a lot of strings attached and not much flexibility.
In addition to grants, the ECBID went to the municipal bond market to come up with the funds for the 47.5 delivery system. We borrowed $15 million for the construction of
the pumping plant and another $1.68 million for additional East Low Canal expansion.
After we had worked on that system for a year, the Washington State Legislature provided another $5 million to enable us to oversize it. We took a break, redesigned the system for an additional 2,000 acres, and ultimately built a system for 10,500 acres at a total cost of $20.8 million. We ended up about $800,000 over what we were funded for, but we are operational this year and have delivered to over 8,500 acres. After the federal process, the complexities of funding projects from different sources on different timelines is something we’ve become a lot more familiar with, and we now recognize how much it can affect the development of a project.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about how OGWRP is helping to preserve an aquifer that is relied upon by several small towns for their drinking water supply?
Craig Simpson: Often, it feels like folks look at OGWRP as a CBP development program and think that we’re just working to benefit farmers. I don’t think we do a very good job of pointing out that we’re not just doing this for our own benefit or for that of the landowners. The reality is the landowners are providing a solution to a problem that affects our communities. The local communities depend on those lands to continue to produce high-value crops that are then processed in the processing plants. This isn’t a landowner development program, and in fact, the landowners are on the hook to pay for the majority of it. This is a groundwater replacement rescue program; people have lost sight of that. The farmers are taking on major debt loads to help restore the aquifer. They don’t have to do this. It costs a lot to pump water 15 miles uphill, and prices for major infrastructure are not going down. The capital costs of this project are well over $300 million, and if there is not enough grant funding available, landowners or the district may have to borrow the money for it, which would make it a $600 million project, since interest doubles the cost.
We need to remember why we are developing OGWRP and that it’s temporary. The CBP was never envisioned to be built this way. In fact, the excess capacity in the East Low Canal that we’re using is actually designed to be used by the SCBID for its future expansion. There are authorized CBP acres that the SCBID is not delivering to right now. The acres in Odessa that we are delivering to are intended to be served by a gravity system called the East High Canal; it was never envisioned that they would be served by the East Low Canal and pumping plants. It’s easy to get stuck in what we’re doing right now and not remember why we’re doing it, who’s paying for it, and who the beneficiaries are. The team at the ECBID works hard to keep the overall project goals and their importance at the forefront of everything we do.
Irrigation Leader: What is your message to the Washington State Legislature and to Congress? What should they know about the work that you have done and the work that is yet to be done?
Craig Simpson: The first legislation to help OGWRP was passed in 2004, and there’s a long history of state and federal support for it, including changes to laws that help govern the program. Our representatives in Congress have always supported us, including in our dealings with Reclamation and other entities. We can’t ever sufficiently express our appreciation for them and our good fortune in having a lot of the same folks in place for all those years. The members of our congressional delegation have a large amount of knowledge about what’s going on with OGWRP. They’re invested in what has happened, and they have continued to support us, which is the most beneficial thing that our legislators can do for us. Beyond that, they continue to provide us funding. I hope they continue to provide the funding, and with as much flexibility as they possibly can, because things change quickly. Different landowner groups want to do different things at different times, and restrictions on how we can use the funds reduce our ability to help them all.
Over the longer term, we want to find a way to modify the Reclamation Reform Act so that it doesn’t limit the ability of OGWRP to be effective at its full 90,000‑acre potential. The 960‑acre limitation is not reasonable in our area. It may be appropriate for California orchards, but the large row-crop family farms in eastern Washington cannot operate off 960 acres and stay competitive. They need to grow rotational crops on multiple thousands of acres. We need to find a way to allow them to access OGWRP without being penalized because their family farm is already 3,000–4,000 acres in size. We’ve got to find a way to do something about that limitation, because it’s going to restrict the number of acres we can develop in Odessa. We’ve already seen it on the 47.5 delivery system. One landowner had over 2,000 acres on the system, but the 960‑acre limitation dictated by the Reclamation Reform Act meant that he only signed up half his land. He needed the full amount of water and tried to make it work, but it resulted in half his land not being transferred to CBP water. You don’t want to see an impractical regulatory constraint be the reason why you can’t fulfill the functions of a program. I think there are ways to have an exemption for the Odessa. We need to revisit that and try to make it work without blowing up the whole Reclamation Reform Act in the process.
Craig Simpson is the secretary-manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District. He can be contacted at email@example.com or (509) 488‑9671.