In July 2012, The Spokesman-Review editorialized enthusiastically in support of new ways of paying for major irrigation system expansions in the Columbia Basin.
Enthusiastically, and prematurely.
Last month, the Columbia-Snake River Basin Irrigators Association filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for failing to sign off on water service contracts that would allow farmers to expand irrigated acreage from 10,000 to 14,000 acres without consuming any additional water.
And without public money.
The irrigators association has chosen to go with $42 million in private bank financing for improvements to System 1, which is north of Interstate 90 in Adams, Lincoln and Grant counties. It also has the buy-ins from members assuring repayment of the loan, with the bill for each farm apportioned according to where they are on the system.
The banks have committed a total $100 million to System 1 and subsequent developments on Systems 2 and 4. Another private group wants to do System 3. Together, the projects would add 70,000 irrigated acres, another increment toward the 1.2 million acres envisioned when the Columbia Basin Project was conceived decades ago.
There’s a long way to go, with the money and water to realize the dreams of its backers unlikely to materialize soon, if ever. It won’t happen, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators assert, if the bureau and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District insist on what the suit calls a 20th century model of public financing for irrigation system improvements, and the distribution of the costs among growers.
The district’s plan, to the degree there is a plan, relies on the sale of revenue bonds, with irrigators assessed at a flat, “normative” rate for their repayment. Only 10,000 acres would get water.
The result, according to the Columbia-Snake group, is bonds with higher interest and longer terms compared with the bank loans. The estimated annual cost per acre for district customers would range between $400 and $450. Costs for Columbia-Snake irrigators would vary from $250 up to $500.
But some members might have had their water next year if the group’s approach had not been treated with the bureaucratic indifference, if not hostility, alleged in the complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
The outcome could ride on whether the Washington Department of Ecology, which granted the bureau surface water rights from the Columbia River to replace well water, sanctions the water-spreading – from 10,000 acres to 14,000 acres – that is critical to the financial feasibility of the Columbia-Snake proposal.
The association alleges the state backed away from a commitment to approve water-spreading under pressure from the bureau and district. The court can sort out those charges.
What would be a shame to lose in the litigation is an opportunity for irrigators to do business in a new way as the region could be entering a period when wise use of water will become imperative.
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