EAST WENATCHEE – If you can see what the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District is doing, then something has triggered a leak.
Unlike other water utilities like the Wenatchee Reclamation District, the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District transports all of its water through underground pipelines, serving 10,000 acres around the Wenatchee Valley.
“These are pressurized underground pipes that are measured and distributed evenly among the water users,” says District Manager Mike Miller. “We’re kind of unique to irrigation. Typically… you will see ditches, canals and water going through their weirs, whereas with our district you will see a pipe go up and then a sluice gate, and that’s probably all you see.
But until recently, the water district did not have these pipes, pumps and other infrastructure. The pipelines and easements now used to serve orchards and home customers were originally installed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation between 1959 and 1963. The office handed system oversight to the district in 1974. But the federal agency still had the authority to issue the necessary permits, and this slowed down necessary steps such as repairs, upgrades and the development of new lots.
“There is no funding for the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District, for infrastructure or for upgrades, unless we can get a grant,” Miller said. “We were successful in securing several grants, but struggled to replace the infrastructure and modernize the infrastructure because of the funding. We are strictly funded by our taxpayers.
The district operates three separate irrigation units along the Columbia River at East Wenatchee, Brays Landing and Howard Flats. These units supply water to East Wenatchee, Desert Canyon and the Lake Chelan Airport area. In early August, Reclamation announced it would cede 27 parcels of federal land where the pipes now go to the irrigation district. This includes all underground pipes, mining rights, easements and equipment required for maintenance.
The transfer of title must remain in Congress for 90 days, in case a lawmaker objects. But Miller says it’s not likely. One of the biggest champions of the transfer has been U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse, whose district includes much of the irrigation system.
“The Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District is the first example of success we’ve had in making these title transfers,” says Newhouse, R-4th District. “But they’re not the only ones who want to see this, and the problems we’re seeing in Wenatchee and other districts have mostly to do with the operation and maintenance of the infrastructure itself.”
Another district in the Newhouse constituency, the Kennewick Irrigation District, announced on September 17 that it would also receive the title of its Bureau-owned infrastructure. The title transfer process was made easier by the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, 2019, which allows title transfers to be done administratively.
Miller, who retired at the end of August after leading the transfer of title to completion, said the transfer would provide new opportunities for both maintaining and improving the irrigation system, notably a project financed by bonds of 2 million dollars to modernize its booster plant. It can also expand to wind and solar power generation projects, to offset its own heavy use of electricity to pump water upstream.