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Salazar approves two important Washington state water projects

by Lora Abcarian | April 23, 2009
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced April 15 that two water projects of significant importance to agricultural producers in Washington state will be funded as part of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. The stimulus package will include $5 million for the Potholes Supplemental Feed Route and another $50 million for the Weber Siphon Complex.

"We are going to see construction start on efforts to help the Odessa [WA] aquifer and strengthen water delivery to the south part of the Columbia Basin Project," Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, told The Produce News. Projects approved under the package are considered "shovel-ready."

The Potholes Supplemental Feed Route will move water from the Potholes Reservoir along a dry creek bed that flows into Moses Lake. Project approval addresses two important priorities: freeing up water capacity in the East Low Canal and creating a secondary pathway to service agricultural producers in southern Washington.

Only half of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project was completed, leaving producers in the southern region with limited alternatives. Farmers in the Odessa area, which includes over 35,000 acres of irrigated potato land developed with private funds, use wells and pump from the underlying aquifer. Mr. Voigt told The Produce News that the situation was becoming critical because the aquifer is starting to go dry. "Odessa farmers use deep wells to pump water," he said. "Their wells are declining."

Results of a recent study released last month indicated that water in the aquifer is very old, raising concerns. "There is very little if any recharge going to that aquifer," Mr. Voigt noted. "That makes it a higher priority."

Funding for the Potholes project creates another pathway to move water from northern Washington to the southern region. "Currently, there is only one way," Mr. Voigt said. "The first step is creating physical infrastructure to get the water to Odessa. The second is to create water security."

The bidding process is expected to be announced soon, and construction should begin during the late summer. Mr. Voigt anticipated that construction will take approximately one year, but added that the project should be completed in 2010.

Completion of the Weber Siphon Complex will eliminate the north-south pinch point at I-90. "The East Low Canal was built to full size," Mr. Voigt told The Produce News. "I-90 is the dividing line. When the canal goes under the interstate, it's half-size."

Although water has been available for delivery to the south, the infrastructure to accomplish the task has been unavailable. Funding of the Weber Siphon Complex will allow for the addition of another siphon 18 feet in diameter to the south of I-90, thereby eliminating the bottleneck.

"It's custom built," Mr. Voigt said of the structure, and construction is expected to begin around late summer or early fall. As is true with the Potholes project, the complex is expected to be completed in 2010. Washington's agricultural community warmly received news of the funding. "People are so happy and excited to see things are happening today," Mr. Voigt said of the reaction. "We can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel."