Don't let the well run dry

Things are rosy for Washington's farmers and ranchers. The crops are good and the markets are great.

For example, one eastern Washington wheat farmer said $7 a bushel was great, but $10 is beyond description. That makes up for some rather dismal years where some farmers and ranchers nearly lost everything because of poor prices.

On top of the strong prices, agricultural production set a record bringing in nearly $7 billion in 2006, a 6 percent increase over 2005. It doesn't get much better than that.

Everybody had a good year, but no group smiles more broadly than apple growers. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, apples accounted for 21 percent of total production. Just a couple of years ago, orchardists were ripping out trees and converting their crops to wine grapes or pasture, or simply converting their property to subdivisions. Turnarounds like this one can give you whiplash.

The strong farm prices stimulate sales for farm implement dealers, agriculture suppliers and manufacturers such as Nelson Irrigation Corp. in Walla Walla. Nelson specializes in agricultural sprinkler systems that conserve water and target water in the proper amounts at the right time.

And that water for efficient irrigation holds the key to keeping family farms alive in central and eastern Washington. As it stands now, bountiful harvests in Washington spring from three different water sources. We have an abundance of rain on the west side of the state, high mountains to collect snowpack in the Cascades and Olympics, and a Columbia and Snake river system that stores flood waters and releases them into the system throughout the year.

While the rain continues to fall in western Washington and the snow will soon pile up in the mountains, the thriving agricultural industry east of the Cascades faces several risks.

For example, in the Odessa area in central Washington, the water table is dropping at an alarming rate. The aquifer needs recharging. That can happen in one of two ways. Farmers can stop irrigating, a no-solution solution that kills the regional ag industry. The alternative has its own political problems. Columbia River water could be made available to sprinkle potatoes, which would allow the water to funnel back into the ground to bring up the water table.

That is the focal point of controversy, and while people argue, the water table drops. As it does, the threat to family farms, successful rural communities, and household budgets increases dramatically. Take away the ability of Washington farms to irrigate and farms fail, food prices increase and towns disappear.

With additional water storage capacity, we could manage the problem better. It is not only a question of where to build new reservoirs to capture spring runoff, but how to pay for these multimillion dollar projects.

Finally, we face the ongoing political pressure to breach the Snake River dams. Some elected officials, including Washington's own Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Seattle), want to take out the four dams between Lewiston and Pasco, leaving many agricultural pumping stations in the four reservoirs - and the farming communities who depend on them - high and dry.

Hydropower is one of our state's most abundant, clean and affordable energy sources. It creates no greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Breaching the dams will rob our electrical grid of much needed generating capacity. In addition, removing the dams will eliminate river barges as a way to affordably transport farm products to terminals in Portland and Vancouver and bring supplies up river.

If our elected officials develop good water policy, our agricultural sector will thrive, and our state will continue to grow. What does good water policy look like? It is policy that not only protects and enhances salmon and steelhead runs, but encourages water conservation and recycling, while providing sufficient water for farmers. For example, good water policy would encourage using treated wastewater for beneficial uses such as industrial process water or to water golf courses.

However, if we engage in a policy that robs farms for fish or pits rural communities against city dwellers, we will all lose.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.


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