A small delegation led by the League returned to Washington DC on March 24th and 25th, after a two-year COVID-induced break. A return to a pre-COVID meeting regime made it possible to schedule in-person meetings in Congressional and Executive Branch offices to communicate League priorities.

The traveling group included, Matt Harris, League Chair & Director of Government Relations for the Washington Potato Commission; Tom Tebb, Director of the Department of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River; Duaine Anderson, President, East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID) Board of Directors; and Mike Schwisow, League Director of Government Relations.

The message delivered by team members during the various meetings focused on several different areas. Foremost was support for funding pathways for Federal participation in the construction of the Odessa Ground Water Replacement Program (OGWRP) distribution systems and county road bridges. The Reclamation pathway has been the primary focus in the past, but a second pathway has opened recently with a grant award to ECBID of a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grant.  The NRCS Watershed and Flood Operations program, known as PL-566 holds the potential to provide game changing funding for distribution system development. The League will now focus on the Farm Bill funding source for this program in addition to the Reclamation/Interior Department budget. Work is just beginning on the 2023 Farm Bill and the League will join other advocates to assure that adequate authorizations for PL-566 grants are available when the OGWRP watershed plan is complete and OGWRP projects are ready to compete for funding.

The delegation also discussed a Reclamation repayment issue. Congressionally enacted authorizations for Reclamation projects typically require project beneficiaries to repay construction costs over a 50-year period. This is the case for the Columbia Basin Project (CBP) and is accomplished through repayment contracts between Reclamation and local entities who operate the Project on behalf of landowners. The OGWRP lands are not covered by the existing ECBID contract as those lands have not been developed in the traditional manner. The League believes the OGWRP is a public interest environmental and economic rescue program to save the aquifer and as such, Reclamation should review whether construction funds should be subject to repayment. When OGWRP is completed OGWRP landowners will be asked to repay the Federal investment in completing the Project. Many examples exist of public interest projects which are funded through grants not subject to repayment.

Several other topics were also addressed. Reinvestment in existing aging CBP infrastructure to ensure uninterrupted water supplies is also a priority. The Columbia Basin Project is one of the most drought resilient in the West but continued reinvestment in the infrastructure is necessary to ensure that facilities that are, in some cases, over 70 years old remain reliable.

Always on the list of issues with policymakers is a call to complete the Project. The Congressional authorization for the CBP provides for an ultimate project of 1,029,000 acres. Today about 680,000 acres receive Project water supplies. There are no other places in the United State where the land and water resources exist to increase the food security status of the United States. The long-term droughts now plaguing the West are bring this fact into sharper focus.

During the brief two-day visit, the team conducted the following meetings:

  • Liz Payne, Legislative Director, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers
  • Keil Weaver & Annick Miller, Staff Director and Senior Professional Staff, Subcommittee on Water, Oceans & Wildlife, House Committee on Natural Resources
  • Senator Maria Cantwell, Staffers Megan Thompson & Devin Helfrisch,
  • Louis Aspey, Associate Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA
  • Laura Powell, Professional Staff, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy & Water Development
  • Ari Perlmutter, Legislative Assistant, Congresswoman Kim Schrier
  • Travis Martinez, Legislative Director, Congressman Dan Newhouse
  • Melissa Guerrero & Hart Clements, Staff for Senator Patty Murray
  • Reclamation Deputy Commissioner David Palumbo and Reclamation Budget Director Bob Wolfe

Stay up to date with Project happenings every month.