Irrigation Leader
District Profile,  Interview,  Washington State

Reclaiming Return Flows South Columbia Basin Irrigation District’s David Solem and John O’Callaghan on the Largest Water Conservation Project in the Columbia River Basin

Irrigation districts seeking to undertake infrastructure projects often face two perennial obstacles: funding and permitting. The South Columbia Basin Irrigation District (SCBID) had to overcome those challenges when building its return flow pumping station project. The district had to balance the requirement to complete the project quickly to receive needed federal funding against the time-consuming regulatory process, but doing so successfully allowed SCBID to build a project that will improve its water supply and mitigate the effects of drought and other severe weather conditions. SCBID General Manager David Solem and Assistant Manager of Technical Services John O’Callaghan recently spoke with Irrigation Leader’s senior writer, John Crotty, about the project’s origins, how it will benefit water users in the district, and the financial and regulatory challenges that districts face when building large infrastructure projects.

John Crotty: How did this project first come about?

John O’Callaghan: We had a long-standing interest in pumping the return flow water back into the Columbia River to relieve water shortages. The shortages were not caused by water supply issues, but by usage and capacity limitations. In 2014 and 2015, we had back-to-back record diversion years due to particularly dry weather conditions. Over the next 2 years, we initiated temporary pumping to mitigate those problems, with some degree of success. Those efforts validated our desire to pursue return flow pumping projects.

The return water has already been paid for at the pumps, so the more we can pump before it returns to the river, the less that has to be pumped from Grand Coulee Dam. The Bonneville Power Administration’s (BPA) Energy Smart Reserved Power (ESRP) program places a value on water that is not pumped, and this could be the largest and most valuable water conservation project ever done on the Columbia Basin Project.

John Crotty: What helped the project move from idea to reality?

David Solem: John was probably the biggest factor. We had previous managers who had installed temporary systems to address the water supply and capacity issues, but it was easy to see that there would be a lot of benefits to moving forward with a permanent solution. John brought that vision to the district and set out to make it a reality. There has also been a long-standing desire to serve all the acres that we contract with every year. Some of those contracts can be altered or cut off if we encounter certain supply or capacity issues, but we never want to do that unless we absolutely have to.

John Crotty: When did you start breaking ground on the project?

John O’Callaghan: The construction contract was signed in November 2016, after which we began obtaining the necessary permits, and then finally broke ground. The project was originally estimated to cost $5.0–5.5 million, but some of that was offset by the $1.5 million in funding we received from BPA. The federal money had been applied for and approved in fall 2015. Initially, BPA was looking for the plant construction to be completed in fiscal year 2016. It became clear that this time line would not be possible, and the district sought to secure an extension from BPA.

Meanwhile, we continued the engineering process. The extension was ultimately granted for 1 more year, but we still had to have the plant commissioned before the end of fiscal year 2017. After all the preconstruction dust settled, we had an 8-month construction window, the first 2 months of which were during the most severe winter the area had seen in decades.

David Solem: Convincing BPA to give us an extension was quite a challenge because BPA did not want to have projects funded by that program to carry over from one year to another, but we were able to convince them that a 1-year extension was necessary for a project as large and complex as ours. Our project was the biggest BPA had ever funded under the ESRP program, and it was also the first that had ever been granted an extended funding deadline.

John Crotty: Can you describe the specifications of the plant and the other infrastructure that was built?

John O’Callaghan: We have a concrete-lined canal that is called the Esquatzel Diversion Canal, and it serves as the terminal wasteway for most of the irrigation project. That canal takes return flows west across the southern end of the district to the Columbia River. It also serves as a flood control mechanism. The canal’s capacity is 5,300 cubic feet per second (cfs), but that capacity would only be reached during a large runoff event. The canal normally conveys 50–300 cfs of return flow to the Columbia River. At one point, the canal crosses the Pasco Pump Lateral. The canal is at a lower elevation than the lateral, with the lateral passing under the canal via a siphon.

The plan for the project was to take return flow from the canal and pump it up into the lateral. To do that, we built a pump off the south side of the Esquatzel Diversion Canal and installed three 200-horsepower, variable-frequency pumps to extract the water. The sump is a 90-degree turnout off the channel, and the pumps discharge to three pipelines that run 200 feet over to the east and into the Pasco Pump Lateral. A weir sits just downstream but can be removed seasonally based on conditions. The weir is meant to raise the elevation in front of the pumps and ensure sufficient pump submergence.

John Crotty: How did urbanization factor into the project?

John O’Callaghan: The issue was with the Pasco Pump Lateral, which serves the first irrigation block in the Columbia Basin project. The entire Pasco area is urbanizing rapidly on the periphery of the irrigated areas. There are some concerns about the physical condition of the first irrigation ditch built on the Columbia Basin Project, which was built differently than all the other ditches in the project. There are a lot of homes downstream of the new pumping plant, along with another pump station. If there is a power outage, the downstream pumping station can go offline, and all the water instead will have to flow into an emergency wasteway. If the amount of diverted water exceeds the wasteway’s capacity, homes that are downstream will be in danger of flooding.

John Crotty: Did BPA impose any conditions on the receipt of the grant money, other than the timeline?

David Solem: They wanted to know that the system would in fact work once it was completed. We had some pretesting done by the pump manufacturer, but BPA still wanted more proof before it was satisfied and wanted to see the project completely assembled and operational, with water being pumped through it. We were able to demonstrate the system’s functionality to BPA in September 2017 even though some of the outlaying parts were not yet finished. We will finish and activate the project by mid-March.

John Crotty: What lessons did you learn over the course of designing and building this project?

David Solem: There are regulatory processes that districts have to go through to get these projects off the ground, and that has been one of the biggest topics of discussion during our conversations with state and federal regulators. At the same time, the agencies are telling us to look elsewhere for funding and match that money up with the timeline of the few sources of public money that are available, which is not always possible. Things like the National Environmental Policy Act process, Bureau of Reclamation reviews, and the process of hiring a contractor all take time and can exceed timelines for grants or loans from government agencies.

When we discuss regulatory streamlining, what we are talking about is matching up the regulatory process with funding sources. It is particularly difficult for districts like ours to complete a permitting process after being assured of funding without losing the funds due to taking too long to finish the project. That was part of the dilemma with this project, and we did everything possible to expedite things so we could receive the federal money.

We also have to give Reclamation a lot of credit, because it worked work with us to keep the process moving. The individuals who dealt with us were excellent to work with, but they do not have control over all aspects of the process. Reform of the permitting regimes is needed so that districts do not have projects that have been studied, designed, and permitted but that have to sit on the shelf waiting for money.