Yakima Valley district cuts off irrigation water due to drought
MOXEE CITY, Yakima County — An irrigation district that serves about 1,400 farmers in the Yakima Valley shut off the water supply yesterday for what is believed to be the first time in April, another sign of the region's severe drought.
The shutdown marked the earliest date the 72,000-acre Roza Irrigation District has interrupted water for irrigators. The Central Washington district interrupted water delivery in 1994 and 2001, both drought years, but those shutoffs didn't occur until May.
District board members hope to have the water running through canals again in three weeks.
"If the weather stays cool, wet like they're predicting, we should be able to get through," said Ric Valicoff, a district board member and orchardist who grows cherries, apples, peaches, apricots and nectarines on 450 acres in the Yakima Valley.
Months of below-average precipitation have left much of the Pacific Northwest gearing up for the worst drought since 1977. Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a statewide drought emergency last month.
While heavy rains and mountain snowfall in March helped, many farmers said the precipitation likely won't make up for months of dryness.
Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimated the region's junior water-rights holders, whose water supply can be interrupted, would receive 34 percent of their average water supply. A new water forecast was expected later this week.
Meanwhile, farmers and water managers alike are being forced to make tough choices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Statistics Service in Olympia released figures this week indicating farmers are planting less this spring because of anticipated water shortages. Growers also are getting pickier about which acres to try to harvest.
Tom Hattrup, another Yakima Valley orchardist, pointed to several piles of Red Delicious apple trees that had been pulled from his brother's orchard.
There was a lot of consideration about going ahead and farming the block, he said, but prices are down and the crop had a light bloom following a heavy bloom last year, which generally means less production.
"They probably would have been pulled anyway, but the drought just hastened the decision," he said.
Decisions about when to move the water that is available can be even more difficult, Valicoff said. Grape growers often don't ramp up their water usage until mid-May, but hay growers, who make up a small percentage of the district, need water early for a first cutting.
The early water shutoff also raises concerns about the potential for frost damage, because orchardists often apply water to crops in April as a frost-defense mechanism.
"It's a tough decision because you've got a lot of different interests in the whole 72,000-acre district," Valicoff said. "It's hard to irrigate your land when you're used to getting 5-½ to six gallons per acre during the season, and you're suddenly only going to get two.
"But we'll make it work, because we've been through this enough in the past."
In a normal water year, the district is allocated 375,000 acre-feet of water through the growing season; but it expects to receive about one-third of that this year. The district has purchased 25,000 acre-feet of water from senior water-rights holders and aims to purchase at least 10,000 acre-feet more. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover an acre to a depth of one foot.
Valicoff also has proposed that the state provide matching dollars for districts that spend their own money to buy water.
Gregoire has requested $12 million in emergency drought funds from the Legislature, with more than half of that money to be used for water transfers and water purchases.
Farther north, irrigators with junior water rights along the Methow and Wenatchee rivers have received notice from the state Department of Ecology that they must call a hotline to find out if they can use water.
The notices are not new, but they usually aren't mailed until at least June, said Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]