UMATILLA COUNTY — An interest in Columbia River water that could potentially supply the former Umatilla Chemical Depot is changing hands from the Northeast Oregon Water Association to Umatilla County.
“This is one of those projects that will be able to sustain economic development in Umatilla County for years to come,” commissioner John Shafer said.
Commissioners voted Wednesday to approve an exclusive option agreement with NOWA in preparation for acquiring interest in the rights to pump up to 45 cubic feet per second out of the river through a pump station located there. The water could be used to serve potential economic development on the depot and to recharge the aquifer located there, giving farmers greater access to water for irrigation.
The project has about $835,000 plus interest left to be paid off, which the county will purchase. Shafer said the county will immediately provide NOWA with the money for a $25,000 interest payment due July 7.
Shafer said NOWA founder JR Cook had discussed with him that the organization needed someone to take over the financial obligation for the water interest but had not had any takers. Such an opportunity to draw water from the Columbia River is extremely difficult to obtain from the federal government.
“This one’s get all the federal permits done and it’s ready to go, it’s just capped off waiting for development,” Shafer said.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Cook called the interest a “very valuable asset to the region.” The water could be used by companies looking to build on the depot land and to recharge the large aquifer that runs under the depot.
“This project has the very real opportunity to take wintertime Columbia River water and recharge that aquifer that is actually in a critical groundwater area, that has been depleted to the point that there is a ton of storage because we’ve pumped all the water out of it,” he said.
Shrinking water levels in the area’s basalt aquifers have taken farmland out of production or moved it to less profitable dryland crops. NOWA was launched with a grand vision of a water recharge project that would build three pipes from the Columbia River and allow farms to use that water instead of groundwater, giving the aquifers time to recharge. The water pulled from the river would be mitigated by municipal water rights transferred and left in the river.
Factors ranging from government bureaucracy to a lawsuit against Westland Irrigation District have slowed the project, however. The county’s purchase of the interest discussed Wednesday would help preserve the central arm of the project by keeping the option open to pipe water to the depot area.
Once the final deal goes through, the county will be guaranteed intake capacity of 30 csf year-round and will have first right to an additional 15 csf except for July 15-Sept. 30. It will also obtain an easement to build a pipeline to pump the water to the former depot.
The depot is in the final stages of being transferred from the U.S. Army to the locally-controlled Columbia Development Authority. The CDA plans to market portions of the depot for industrial development, and water availability will improve the land’s marketability.
Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to sign the option agreement.
“There is no question about the importance of this project to industrial and agricultural growth of the region,” commissioner Bill Elfering said.