With municipal wells drying up throughout the Columbia Basin, Washington state Rep. Mary Dye hopes to solve the problem by completing the Grand Coulee Dam project started in the 1940s.
Dye, who has represented the 9th Legislative District since 2015, said aquifer levels in the Odessa aquifer system, which supply water to the Columbia Basin, have declined 200 feet since the 1970s and water levels continue to decrease nine feet each year.
The Odessa aquifers are part of the same regional Columbia Basin basalt aquifer system that supplies drinking water to some 60,000 people on the Palouse. Water levels of Palouse-dependent aquifers are also on the decline.
The Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee, which monitors the Palouse's aquifers, has described the decline as a little less than a 1-foot drop in water level each year.
Dye began tackling the water shortage in 2016 when the municipal well in Lind, Wash., ran dry.
"There are 125,000 people (on the Columbia Basin) at risk of losing their drinking water in their towns, including Moses Lake," Dye said, in an interview with the Daily News.
Farmers throughout the basin are also dependent on the water for irrigation to grow potatoes, onions, grapes and other fruits.
The Pomeroy Republican said owners of one eastern Washington farm that supports 64 families are capping eight wells this year and they have no idea how they are going to support their loved ones.
Dye said finishing the Grand Coulee Dam project, which was meant to provide surface water to those Columbia Basin farmers for irrigation, would also allow the aquifers to recharge.
Construction of the Grand Coulee Dam project was halted in 1968 before such infrastructure was put in place.
"It's at a critical point," Dye said. "The time is running out. We need to get the water delivered from the Grand Coulee Dam to the irrigators so that we can both preserve what aquifer there is and also to recharge the aquifer and get a lot of the agricultural land protected."
She said while Lind's well was restored, towns like Ritzville, Harrington and Othello have been experiencing diminished water levels. Othello has been struggling to keep food processing industries in town because its well is insecure, Dye said.
She said Washington has seen a 25 percent reduction in potato acreage because of shrinking water supplies.
"We knew this day would come," she said. "I mean ever since I was even serving on the (Washington Association of Wheat Growers) in the '90s, we were talking that the Odessa aquifer was being depleted by deep well irrigation and that we needed to get back to finishing the Columbia Basin project."
Dye said state officials are requesting $10 million per year for five years to fund the project.
She said supporters of the project are trying to gain sufficient funding so the federal government can fund the project's remaining needs.
"If (President Donald Trump) chooses to fund the whole project, it's a total game changer for the state," Dye said.
She has met with White House staff four times in the last year to speak about the project and declining aquifer levels in the state. One of those visits included an October meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway.
If all necessary funding and resources were available, Dye said it would take 10 years or less to complete the project.
Expanding broadband to rural eastern Washington communities and providing greater access to fire fighting resources for rural districts are other primary focuses for Dye this legislative session, which starts Jan. 14.
Dye will serve on four committees, including House Appropriations; House Capital Budget; House Environment and Energy; and Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.