Organization fights for science in state irrigation usage

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Darryll Olsen of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association speaks at the annual meeting of the Washington State Grape Society about the importance of using private sector capital to build irrigation infrastructure.

— Private sector funding is one way the state can improve its irrigation infrastructure, according to Darryll Olsen of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Washington State Grape Society last Thursday, Olsen made the argument that, with public sector funds drying up due to other priorities, private sector funding may be the only way to keep the infrastructure up and running.

Olsen said his organization’s goal is to keep water in the pumps. The best method to do so is to support projects with economic viability. The key, he says, is looking for projects built on technical competence firmly based in science. Olsen said it’s also important to look for honesty.

“It’s easy to lie to yourself and others in water resource management,” he said, stressing the science has to be there to back up projects.

Olsen said there’s also a tendency to overestimate the impact of a single project, as in a case his organization was supporting. The new Columbia River water right was granted to Easterday Farms in March 2015. The original application was made in 1992.

He said an environmental organization immediately challenged the water right, claiming it took out a significant portion of the water in the river. Olsen’s organization provided a graph that showed the impact of the new water right in red compared to the entire flow of the river.

“The judge thought the graph was flawed because he couldn’t see the red,” Olsen said. “It was just that the impact really is that small.”

The environmental group then argued the Columbia River is being drained constantly by all the water rights. In response, Olsen says his organization provided a historical graph of the flow of the river since 1929.

“It varies widely from year to year,” he said. “But if you put a trending line in there, the flow is actually going up. There is more water in the system now than in 1929.”

Olsen said the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association supports a conservation operations and management program that reduces the use of irrigation water.

“This is 2015, not the 20th century,” he said. “We get full use of the water. We don’t do flood irrigation anymore.”

Olsen said with conservation, new projects should be approved and new water rights granted. Even better, when water rights are granted, purchasers pay mitigation fees, which Olsen said will help pay for other improvement projects.

He talked about a new tax proposed by Sen. Jim Honeyford that his organization opposed. The tax would fund the Yakima River Basin Integrated Plan.

“I respect him a lot,” Olsen said of Honeyford. “But we oppose a new tax. This could be funded by leasing more water rights and making sure those with a stake in the project are helping to pay for it.”

He said the integrated plan needs to be prioritized first, then a funding source should be found. He believes local irrigators should be paying half the cost, because they have high stakes in the project, but much of the project could be funded through new water rights on the Columbia River.

He concluded his speech by saying that food scarcity isn’t a fear any more, but the cost of food is a driving force in the economy.

“It used to be about making sure everyone had enough to eat,” he said. “It’s now about people spending a smaller percentage of their disposable income on food so they have more money for other purchases.”

He said in the 1930s people spent about a quarter of their take-home pay on food. Now it’s less than 10 percent.

“The availability of inexpensive food is driving economic growth,” he said. “There’s a huge anxiety about irrigated agriculture and water supply. But there are solutions available, if we just take advantage of them.”



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