(July 21, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) As wells run dry in the potato fields of eastern Washington, grower-shippers are celebrating what could be a light at the end of an 80-year-old tunnel. Both houses of Congress have passed two pieces of legislation that could eventually solve the area’s water shortage problems.

One bill would provide an additional $3 million for near-term water relief, while another bill would fund a study to identify the best method or methods of providing surface water to replace groundwater.

“I would say these are incremental steps toward trying to solve the crisis, the first steps that need to be accomplished before we can go forward and solve the problem,” said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake.

The total funding is a $3.4 million increase over amounts in the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal 2009, he said.

Water in the short term

The near-term relief would remove irrigation water from a canal system that is at capacity.

“What we’re trying to do is run water down an existing creek bed,” Voigt said. “There must be some structural improvements, but the majority of the money will have to be spent on securing rights of way and easements.”

Obtaining access to the land is just the first step. To complete the project will require as much as $18 million in additional funding, Voigt said. The two bills are now in conference committee to work out minor differences, but White House approval of the bills is not expected until next year, he said.

Not overnight relief

The potato commission staff expects the bills to be marked up in committee and that Congress will pass a continuing resolution at the end of the government’s fiscal year to keep the government operating at the previous year’s level. Once a new administration is sworn in, in January, Voigt said Congress will likely send the bills to the White House.

“All the right things are happening, but we know it’s something that isn’t going to occur overnight,” Voigt said.

Among the right things, he said, are new agreements with Native American tribes to release more irrigation water from Lake Roosevelt.

“We’re the No. 1 state for potato processing,” Voigt said. “Any loss of potato acreage could force the closure of at least one, if not two or three, potato processing plants.”

Long time coming

The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project was to have solved the area’s irrigation water shortage when the project was initiated in the 1930s. At the time, Congress appropriated funding to complete half of the project, Voigt said. The balance of the funding has never materialized.

As a stop-gap measure, the state of Washington began granting drilling permits. One result of the pumping, he said, is that the water table is dropping in the eastern Washington potato growing region, which is atop a large aquifer that extends into Idaho and Montana.

Some of the water wells are running dry, and the cost of new wells has become exorbitant, Voigt said. A producing well must be more than 2,000 feet deep and carries a price tag of more than $2 million, he said.