Eastern Oregon group looks toward Columbia River to solve groundwater problems

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Nov. 3, 2023 5 p.m.

Supporters say Columbia can irrigate farms without harming water supply or wildlife

A man stands by a pumps and talks with a group of four people on a platform as the Columbia River flows by in the background.

Mark Maynard, left, of the Columbia Improvement District talks about the irrigation system with Craig Reeder, right, and other members of a tour at a pump station near Boardman, Ore. on Oct. 31, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

The people behind one of the newest irrigation systems in Umatilla and Morrow counties see the promise of their project in an onion shed south of Hermiston.

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Local officials broke ground Thursday on the Ordnance Project, an effort meant to transport thousands of acre feet of water from the robust Columbia River to farms throughout western Umatilla County. The day before, the Northeast Oregon Water Association, also called NOWA, took a group of government officials, irrigation experts and business leaders on a tour of one of the projects they already finished.

The tour guides showcased the shed because the extra water had helped local farmers switch their land from growing canola and wheat to more water-intensive crops like onions. Those onions are being packed for shipping to large restaurant chains like Subway and Chipotle.

NOWA said its aim isn’t just to expand the area’s multimillion-dollar agricultural industry, but also to solve one of the western United States’ biggest challenges: a quickly dwindling groundwater supply.

Checking versus savings

Modern irrigation turned Eastern Oregon’s high desert climate into an agricultural powerhouse.

While much of the region is still dominated by commodity crops like wheat and alfalfa, the farmland bordering the Columbia River can sustain root vegetables like potatoes and onions.

Local farmer and NOWA board member Craig Reeder said those crops are often sent to processors at the Port of Morrow, where they can be turned into products like French fries and shipped off to markets around the world. Irrigated agriculture helped turn the port into a place that supports 6,700 jobs with a gross domestic product of just under $1 billion.

For decades, the local agricultural industry supported itself with groundwater drawn from wells. But it’s a practice increasingly seen as unsustainable across the West as climate change delivers less rainfall and an overly permissive water rights system has depleted some aquifers for generations in Eastern and Central Oregon.

NOWA’s solution is to tap into the Columbia River. NOWA director J.R. Cook compared farm irrigation to bank accounts. The Columbia should act as the region’s checking account, with farmers grabbing river water on its journey toward the Pacific Ocean. The savings account is the groundwater, water that should be saved and grown.

NOWA has already been successful in getting farmers off of groundwater. For $94 million, the group and its partners completed east and west pump stations that move water out of the Columbia and into water lines that distribute it throughout Umatilla and Morrow counties in 2020. Most of those projects were funded privately, with less than 10% coming from government coffers.

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The latest stage is the $42 million Ordnance Project, which will not only pump Columbia water to western Umatilla County farms but also send water to the city of Umatilla and the site of the old Umatilla Chemical Depot, which is being converted into an industrial park.

Cook said the next step will be to restore groundwater by taking excess river water during the high-flow months in the winter and depositing it back into the ground.

“If you don’t use it this year, it’s out in the ocean and you don’t know what next year is gonna be,” he said. “But if you can use those good years, and you can use a little bit of Columbia River water to save groundwater that’s 30,000 years old … then that’s a pretty good net gain on what we’re doing now.”

Drawing river water brings its own environmental concerns, both over water supply and wildlife habitat. Those concerns are coming to the forefront in waterways like the Colorado River and, closer to home, the Klamath River.

But NOWA officials argue that the Columbia is more robust and less over-extended than other irrigated rivers, making it more likely to withstand the pressures of Eastern Oregon’s agricultural demand.

“There’s the theme about irrigation: Death by a thousand cuts and that’s why we have to limit water policy,” Reeder said. “That’s just such a fallacy in our area because you could irrigate every possible, feasible, pumpable acre on the Columbia River and not come anywhere near to the withdrawals out of the Colorado (River).”

‘We have a chance to fix this’

Large-scale agriculture is a thirsty industry and its water use hasn’t escaped the attention of environmental groups like WaterWatch.

While NOWA and its partners don’t have the most comfortable relationship with environmental concerns, Cook said both sides are willing to talk through their issues. He added that he knew his group needed to make a case of how this water would benefit farms, and how it would contribute to the region’s sustainability.

“If you over-appropriate the groundwater system, you’re kind of stuck. We’re seeing that in the Klamath, we’re seeing that in Malheur,” he said. “(That’s) the reason why we have a chance to fix this. We’ve still got some water in the river to be able to help us fix it without impacting fish.”

Fish are a concern for environmentalists and the Columbia Plateau tribes like the nearby Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, who hold treaty rights to fish the Columbia River.

To protect fish, the irrigation projects’ backers have installed screens on their intake equipment. Reeder said these screens have a high rate of success keeping fish out of the equipment and within the current of the river.

Cook said Columbia River irrigation can’t yet offer the region permanent resilience. Leaders will have to monitor population growth and water intake to make sure the river isn’t overdrawn. But he thinks these projects have put the region on the path to sustainability.

“The best thing we can do is finish this plan and get us to a sustainable future,” he said. “What the next round of legislators or the next generation decides to do with that is probably going to be out of my control. All we can do is send them in what we think is the right way to go and hope that they take advantage of the tools to get there.”

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