Editorial: Water flows to farms with help of private funds

July 13, 2012

Adams County irrigators may soon undertake a $75 million expansion project financed with private money.

With the spigot of federal money twisted shut, private cash has become a new spring, one badly needed as wells tapping the Odessa Aquifer begin sucking air or become too expensive to pump.

The newest wells are drilled to one-half mile below the surface.

Wells and the canals fed from Lake Roosevelt have turned 1 million acres of the Columbia Basin, much of it once desert, into a major producer of wheat, potatoes, hay and grapes, each crop worth hundreds of millions to state farmers. But the resource is finite, as unfortunate well owners are finding out.

And irrigators who want a piece of the Odessa Subarea project have very little time to act. The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association has given the owners of 75,000 acres north of Interstate 90 until the end of July to decide whether to participate. Those who pass may not get another chance to bring water to their farms.

Association representative Darryll Olsen calls the deadline “Judgment Day.” With landowner commitments in hand, he says, the association will huddle with area lenders next month to negotiate final financial agreements. A Washington Trust Bank subsidiary and AmericanWest Bank are among the participating institutions. If the terms produce water prices that make financial sense for the farmers, construction could get under way next year.

So far, the owners of less than one-half the potential acreage have said they will be on board, but the project should work financially with that level of interest, Olson says, depending on how scattered the committed parcels are.

The association had at one time envisioned a more ambitious project encompassing land south of I-90. That project did not pencil out because it would have required too much capital.

The Odessa Subarea probably will because construction costs are low right now, as is the cost of financing. Add to those two project drivers the availability of conditional water use permits from the state of Washington and you have what may be a last opportunity to get the project done.

The Kennewick Irrigation District approved another, smaller local improvement district project last month with the same factors in mind. The Red Mountain project, with per-acre costs three times those of the Odessa Subarea, works for landowners because of a $10 million, no-interest loan from the Washington Department of Ecology.

There may be few future opportunities for irrigators or would-be irrigators.

Although many landowners cling to the vision of still grander irrigation projects, their time may have passed. The federal government has other priorities, and demands for Columbia River water exceed the supply.

What we do know is that private investors will take much more care than the government does to see that they get their money back. Good business for them, good business for us.


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