Feature: The Value of the Columbia Basin Project

Feature: The Value of the Columbia Basin Project

By: Madi Moore, Agricultural Economist, Washington State Department of Agriculture

Water is a major contributor to agricultural productivity and economic development in the American West. The late 1940’s saw the expansion of irrigation projects as public investment increased and lowered the financing costs of shared infrastructure. At the same time, the development of dams, water storage and on-farm irrigation infrastructure enhanced the economic viability of utilizing water for irrigated crop production. By the late 1970s, a mere 30 years later, irrigated acreage in the American West had more than doubled. Today less than 25% of U.S. farmland is irrigated but this same land accounts for over 50% of all agricultural production value.

The Columbia Basin provides an example of the impacts of water on agricultural productivity and the critical role it plays in economic growth. When Columbia Basin Project water was first introduced in 1952, this led to the conversion of dry land to irrigated production. Irrigated agricultural production increased not only the profitability but also production reliability of the region. The next few decades experienced a strengthened farm economy, enhanced economic stability in the region and the development of value-added agriculture and food processing. Today, irrigated agriculture is at the center of the Columbia Basin’s economy – supporting communities through the production of food and value-added products.

Adams, Grant, Franklin, and Lincoln counties (the four counties in which the Columbia Basin Project lies) generate roughly $3 billion dollars in agricultural production value (that is one-third of Washington State’s $9 billion agricultural production value). Farms in the region employ over 13,000 people (that is one-in-five employees in the region’s total workforce). Add in the number of employees who work in food processing as well as agricultural services and that number doubles or triples. In fact, the percentage of people employed in agriculture (in the region) is seven times the national per capita average.

Agriculture powers a multi-billion-dollar processing industry. Food processing in Grant County alone accounts for over 15% of all wages and over 45% of all employment within the manufacturing subsector. Food processing in the region is also highly specialized. Over two-thirds of Washington’s potatoes are grown in the Columbia Basin. These potatoes are specific to the Basin, grown for their long storage life, and used to create products shipped across the world. Washington State is the fourth largest exporting state in the nation, a significant portion of these exports are derived from the Columbia Basin.

Irrigated agriculture has contributed to the development of one of the most agriculturally productive regions in Washington, if not the U.S., and yet production in this region is threatened. The decline of the Odessa Aquifer continues to decrease the viability of irrigated agricultural production in the Columbia Basin. On-going federal, state, and private support has softened the effects of the declining Odessa Aquifer but continued collaboration is needed to mitigate the impacts of decreased water availability. In the Columbia Basin, irrigated agriculture is the conduit to producing high-valued crops. These crops support thousands of jobs, through on-farm labor and value-added food processing - solidifying the Columbia Basin as one of the top agricultural regions in the U.S.

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