Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Four Legislative Champions of the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project

The mighty Columbia Basin Project (CBP) is a Reclamation project that dates back to the 1940s and provides Columbia River water to 671,000 acres in east-central Washington State. Some may be unaware, however, that while the entire CBP was authorized by Congress, only three quarters of it have been completed. The delay in the completion of the CBP is now creating serious problems for central Washington irrigators and communities. Most significantly, farmers in the Odessa, Washington, region received permits from the Washington Department of Ecology to drill deep wells on the understanding that a canal would eventually be built to bring CBP water to the land. However, that did not happen for over 40 years, and as a result, the Odessa-area aquifer is being depleted at a rapid rate. The “ancient water” that is now being pumped from it is old, high in temperature, and filled with salt and minerals that make it ill suited for irrigation. The decline of the aquifer not only threatens irrigators in the region; there are also 12 communities that risk losing their domestic water supplies. 

To guarantee the continuance of high-value agriculture in the region, to restore the aquifer, and to secure the water supplies of local municipalities, that use of groundwater must be replaced with the use of surface water from the Columbia River. This expansive undertaking, known as the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP), involves large pumps to pump the water out of the river, large pipes to convey it to the Odessa area, and laterals to bring it to the farms. Only now, with a new pipeline built through the OGWRP, are the first deliveries of Columbia River water being made to the region. 

In this interview, we speak with four Washington State legislators who have played key roles in helping to fund and advance the OGWRP about the importance of the project and the way forward. 

State Representative Tom Dent 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to serve in the Washington Legislature. 

Tom Dent: During my private career, I flew airplanes as a crop duster, a flight instructor, and a corporate pilot. I’ve been flying since 1975. I also own and operate a small ranch where I raise hay and buffalo. 

I grew up in the Columbia basin. My family moved here in 1955, when I was a small boy. We came when the water came to the Columbia basin, and I watched the desert bloom as I grew up. 

I was 10 years old when John Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon, and I became interested in them and the election. President Kennedy’s statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” had a big effect on my life. It’s what pushed me into the political process. 

In 1964, I became involved in my first political campaign, and I haven’t missed one since. I always wanted to run for office myself. I had just sold my business in early 2014 when Doc Hastings announced that he was not going to run for another term in Congress, and I knew that Janéa Holmquist, who was in the state legislature, wanted to run for his seat. I saw my opening in her vacant seat in the legislature, so I decided to run. I am now in my third term. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the legislature’s role in developing and funding the OGWRP? 

Tom Dent: Up to this point, the legislature’s role has been putting money into the project to keep it moving through the Washington Department of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River (OCR). We’ve been able to put over $100 million into this project. We have widened the canal. Only half the siphons that were originally planned for the canal were ever put in, so we’ve added second siphons in several places. Now we have enough infrastructure to get producers on surface water. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your work with federal and state partners and the farmers in the region to support the project? 

Tom Dent: We’re working with farmers to make sure we stay on the same page. Right now, we’re having problems with the cost of the project on a per-acre basis. We’ve been working hard with the growers to help come up with ways to reduce that cost. We’re working with Ecology as well. 

We have also realized that we needed federal money, because while the CBP is a federal project, the OGWRP has been solely supported by the state up to this point. I’ve been to Washington, DC, with Senator Warnick a couple of times to talk to our federal partners and our congressmen and senators. There are three members of Congress whose districts intersect with the 13th state legislative district, which I represent. They, along with our two United States senators, make up a strong team and all support the project. We have met with the U.S. Department of the Interior along with the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well. Having discussed the importance of the project with these agencies, we are hopeful that we may receive federal funding to keep it moving.

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for the Washington Legislature? 

Tom Dent: The first project that has been completed is one known as project 47.5. The pump station has been built, the pipe is in the ground, they’ve been testing it, and there is now water on the ground. We’re going to go back to the legislature and ask for more money to keep this program going. We’re also working with our congressional partners to see if we can get money from them. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the Washington Legislature’s role in developing and completing the CBP? 

Tom Dent: The legislature has engaged in the OGWRP as a stopgap measure until we can complete the CBP. To complete the CBP as designed would be an incredible feat and would significantly advance the rural development of eastern Washington. The infrastructure would create jobs and support communities. Without water, this area would go back to be a desert. Water means so much to eastern Washington, the Columbia basin, and the state of Washington! 

State Representative Mary Dye 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to serve in the Washington Legislature. 

Mary Dye: I’ve been in eastern Washington as a farmer for 33 years. My husband and I farm roughly 3,600 acres of soft white wheat. Prior to that, I was a field agronomist for a startup company that introduced canola to eastern Washington. Prior to that, I was a field tech working in irrigated portions of the Yakima-Grandview area in the Columbia basin. I was appointed to the Washington Legislature when a midterm vacancy emerged in 2015. I won the election to fill the second half of that term in fall 2015, and then won reelection in 2016 and 2018. The November 2020 election will be my third regular election. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your district. 

Mary Dye: It’s a large district of about 7,500 square miles. It includes four full counties and parts of two others. Half the district is in the OGWRP. The other half is in dryland wheat production. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the importance of irrigated agriculture in central Washington? 

Mary Dye: The food supply that irrigated agriculture produces is a matter of national security. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted both the risks of supply chain disruptions and the importance of our irrigated agriculture sector. 

Ninety percent of the potatoes that are produced in our region are fresh frozen and sold to restaurants. Frozen French fries are our second-largest export. In fact, our region is a major producer of the McDonald’s global potato supply. Our potatoes go to restaurants and food service worldwide, including in China and India. 

However, when the pandemic hit, processors suspended their production and processing contracts. It is not possible to quickly repackage for grocery, so we had a billion pounds of potatoes pile up at the farm gates. This shows how important global supply chains are in enabling the economies of scale that support our national food supply. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrates how a major economic disruption affects access to food. Since people were unemployed, we came within a week of running out of food supply to the food bank system. However, the producer community opened up its bins and donated over a million pounds of potatoes during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. The producers sent 20‑ton semi loads to every single congressional district, often making deliveries multiple times. That goes to show the power of our agricultural industry when it’s fully tooled up. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the legislature’s role in developing and funding the OGWRP? 

Mary Dye: In 2017, Senators Schoesler and Warnick and I secured $15 million from the state capital budget to start the first pipeline. In December of that year, I traveled to the nation’s capitol with a delegation that included the Washington State secretary of agriculture; the Washington Senate majority leader, Mark Schoesler; and local growers to ask for federal support. I have been to Washington, DC, on these matters six times. On one occasion, I was invited to join county commissioners serving the OGWRP area at the White House. We met with Vice President Pence, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and Kellyanne Conway. 

In 2019, we were successful in securing another $15 million for a second pipeline through the state capital budget. Later that year, I met with Bill Northey, the undersecretary for farm production and conservation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and with other USDA staff who work on irrigation projects. Northey identified potential monies available through the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Subsequently, we have been working with Roylene Comes At Night, the Washington conservationist of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to submit our first municipal application for the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). We are hopeful that we will be chosen. Our steering committee for that application includes county commissioners, the Washington State secretary of agriculture, the head of the OCR, the head of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID), and the ECBID’s board members. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for the legislature? 

Mary Dye: With the USDA partnering with the state, our intention is to use the RCPP process to start a larger watershed project through the USDA’s PL‑566 watershed program and to dig the final tie canal. If we do that, we can meet a lot of the conservation objectives envisioned by the NRCS. We can use that gravity-fed canal to reach the remaining infill acres on the Odessa aquifer that the pipelines we are building cannot easily reach. That would also allow us to pursue a groundwater recharge strategy similar to what is being done in Idaho’s Snake River basin. 

We can also make the case that advancing the OGWRP addresses federal goals. One of the USDA’s priorities is to remedy salination, and by using deep-well water, farmers are salting the land. The other thing is that the acres that are being dropped off deep-well water without a replacement are going to dryland wheat in a 2-year rotation, which causes the wind and water erosion issues I described earlier. A lot of that land is so short on rainfall that it’s being put into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and information from the National Agricultural Statistics Service suggests that about $25 million dollars a year is being paid to farmers for dryland winter wheat production through the CRP. 

State Senator Mark Schoesler 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to serve in the Washington Legislature. 

Mark Schoesler: I’m a fifth-generation farmer in Ritzville, Washington. My father’s family were German Russians who immigrated here in the 1880s. My mother’s family were German immigrants who came in the 1880s. I grew up in a small town. After community college, I worked briefly for the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation and then returned to the family farm. I’ve been farming full time since 1978. I farm primarily dry land but have one small parcel that is irrigated with reclaimed water from the city. I’ve grown wheat, barley, canola, and winter peas, and I run some beef cattle. I was first elected to the Washington House of Representatives in 1992. I went to the senate in 2004. I’ve been Republican leader in both the majority and the minority since fall 2012. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the legislature’s role in developing and funding the OGWRP? 

Mark Schoesler: The OGWRP was a recipient of the 2005 Columbia River Account, through which the legislature bonded $200 billion. This money was distributed through the entire Columbia River watershed, which includes the Yakima basin and parts of northern, central, and eastern Washington. It supported a host of things, including conservation, fish habitat, and water, and it positioned us to take advantage of President Obama’s stimulus package. Probably the best project of the entire stimulus was the second Weber-Coulee siphon. We built an approximately $30 million dollar siphon that will benefit multiple generations. The taxpayers will be repaid, because it’s part of the irrigation district. A lot of the money in the Obama stimulus was spent on grinding and paving roads that had an effective life of 5–7 years and on paying bureaucrats’ salaries. It was really temporary. The siphon, on the other hand, like many irrigation projects, put people to work building real stuff and benefited future generations, and the money will actually be paid back. 

Since then, the legislature has supported the OGWRP through the OCR, for example by enhancing the East Low Canal. We’ve started design and some construction on pipelines to bring water into the critical areas and get the wells offline. I hope we eventually see a plan to finish the second half of the CBP. 

Irrigation Leader: Have you traveled to Washington, DC, to speak with people there about this work?

Mark Schoesler: I’ve been to DC with friends and constituents and have participated in meetings with the U.S. Department of the Interior and Senator Murray and her staff. I’ve also flown to Denver to meet with Interior and Reclamation staff there. I’ve made a couple of trips at my own personal expense to try keep the message alive that we have a short-term plan, but we have to have a long-term plan to support the economic development and to sustain the drinking water of this entire region. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for the legislature? 

Mark Schoesler: The legislature has been appropriating money to incrementally move the project along. I expect to work with the OCR to shape that policy now and during the session. My colleague Senator Judy Warnick is one of my key people and is leading our work on the capital budget. We’re working with Roylene Comes At Night of the NRCS to see how we can use NRCS funding mechanisms to help the growers buy the cost down. The OGWRP won’t do Odessa-area farms any good if they cannot afford the water that is replacing the water that is rapidly going away. We’re trying to buy the cost of the infrastructure down for a variety of good economic reasons. 

Irrigation Leader: What will be the end result of the OGWRP? 

Mark Schoesler: Our aim is to take 80,000 irrigated acres off groundwater and replace it with surface water until we see the vision of the CBP completed. We believe that if we can take over 70,000 acres off groundwater, we can stop the decline in the aquifer. At that point, our communities can move forward and our economy can prosper. If it is used for irrigated agriculture, the land in the area can produce thousands of dollars per acre per year; it makes less than $100 an acre per year in the CRP or a few hundred dollars every other year if used for dry-land wheat. The multiplier effect is just incredible. 

Irrigation Leader: What would the benefits of completing the CBP be? 

Mark Schoesler: The benefits would be incredible. The land that is part of the CBP was sagebrush and jackrabbits when my father was growing up. Now, Moses Lake is a town of 27,000 with diversified agricultural interests and other economic development. Every community in Adams, Franklin, Grant, and Lincoln Counties has prospered because of the irrigation enabled by the CBP and the possibility of exporting crops to foreign countries. We’re an agricultural linchpin because of that, and we have a lot more potential. The water right for the CBP is a federal and state water right in statute. 

State Senator Judy Warnick 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to serve in the Washington Legislature. 

Judy Warnick: I serve the 13th legislative district as a senator. My legislative career has primarily focused on agriculture and business. I grew up on a family dairy farm, so I have agriculture in my blood. I met a couple of United States senators when I was growing up, so I knew that they were real people, but I never thought that I would be given the opportunity to serve in a legislature. It was a surprise when I was asked to run. I won a race for a seat the Washington House of Representatives in 2006 and moved over to the senate in 2014. I’ve also been fortunate to be named to the senate’s Agricultural Committee. I was on the Agriculture Committee in the house for the 8 years I served there, and I’ve been either chair or ranking member of the Ag Committee in the senate. 

My district begins at the top of Snoqualmie Pass, which is at the border of King County, and extends across central Washington to Spokane County. It’s a wide swath of the state. Each of Washington’s legislative districts has the same number of people, but I joke that ours has more dirt, both because of its area and because it’s primarily rural. 

Most people think that Washington has lots of water because of its reputation for rain, but it does have serious water resources issues. There is more rain on the western side of the state; central Washington is more desert-like, with an average of less than 10 inches of annual rainfall. Without Grand Coulee Dam and the irrigation system it supplies, there would be nothing but sagebrush and sand in our area.

Irrigation Leader: What is the legislature’s role in developing and funding the OGWRP?

Judy Warnick: The legislature’s role is to ensure that Ecology and the OCR have adequate funding to continue this project. Both Ecology and the OCR are funded through state budgets. The current director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Derek Sandison, was the first director of the OCR, and he has been helpful in his current position because he understands the need for water.

The Columbia River Initiative was launched by then Governor Locke in 2001, and since then, the legislature has invested $120 million in the OCR. The legislature has periodically continued funding additional special projects, most recently a $15 million lateral line in the 22.1 area. We allocated that $15 million separately from the OCR to help the OGWRP get started earlier in that area because the farmers there were more affected by aquifer depletion and were ready to contribute matching personal funds.

Legislators are looking for partnerships and investigating how to apply for federal funds under the RCPP and other programs. It’s a huge undertaking, and we’re trying to determine how to take small steps during these tough economic times to make the additional funding go the furthest. It would be great to get the entire $300 million or whatever it takes to finish the project all at once, but that’s not feasible. We’re trying to be realistic, to time our requests appropriately, and to prioritize our projects.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your work with your federal and state partners as well as local farmers to support the OGWRP?

Judy Warnick: Legislators have met with local farmers, the local irrigation district, and the Columbia Basin Development League (CBDL), which covers all of the above: farmers, irrigators, and state agencies. I have traveled to Washington, DC, twice to meet with our federal legislators. The OGWRP is supported by both sides of the political aisle. We just need to figure out how we prioritize our requests and how much we ask for. We were going to go back again this summer, but the COVID-19 restrictions prevented us. We’re taking a strategic approach by prioritizing the most important projects rather than asking for the whole amount of funding. I have been working not only with Ecology but with the CBDL, the ECBID, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the conservation districts.

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for the legislature today?

Judy Warnick: We’re working with all the stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive plan on the state and federal levels. It’s being led by both the state and the county conservation districts. Harold Crose, who is a former NRCS employee, is taking the lead, as he understands the process and knows what funds are available. In addition to reaching out to our federal partners, we’re looking to our state budget as well, though because of COVID-19, we’re not sure what to expect when we go back to the legislative session in January 2021. State-invested funds are allocated through the capital budget. We’ll be asking for matching funds to not only continue investing in the protection of the aquifer, but to match the applications being requested from federal programs. The next step for me as a legislator is to advocate for the protection of our water resources, to help find more funding to match the federal application, and to support the growers’ efforts to do the same.

The interior of the East Low Canal 47.5 delivery system project pumping station, located near Warden, Washington.
Participants in a December 2017 delegation to Washington, DC. From left to right: White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Doug Hoelscher; Randy and Michele Kiesz of Kiesz Farms; Ray Starling, then the special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance; Washington State Representative Mary Dye; Director Derek Sandison of the Washington State Department of Agriculture; Clark Kagele of Clark Kagele Farms; Congressman Dan Newhouse; and Washington State Senator Mark Schoesler.

Will Fargher is a founding director of Aither. He can be contacted at will.fargher@aither.com.au. 

Amy Syvrud is a senior consultant at Aither. She can be contacted at amy.syvrud@aither.com.au.