Friday, July 24, 2015

Pre-statehood water rights curtailed in the Yakima Basin

Mountain tributaries reduced to a trickle can’t support irrigation or fish
By Joye Redfield-Wilder, communications manager

Teanaway River near Cle Elum
Water rights that were among the earliest in the Territory of Washington to be used for irrigation have been shut off in tributaries of the Yakima River due to extreme drought conditions.

Flows in Cowiche Creek and the Teanaway River are so dire that 129 irrigators with rights conferred as far back as 1873 must stop watering their orchards, hay and alfalfa crops on some 2,153 acres, the Washington Department of Ecology announced this week.

“Record-breaking heat coupled with a lack of significant snow or rain this winter and spring has reduced our mountain streams to a trickle,” said Stan Isley, Ecology’s court appointed stream patroller in the Teanaway River Basin. “As a result, tributaries that drain into the Yakima River are flowing at historically low levels. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

For the first time this year, a stream patroller has been appointed on Cowiche Creek where traditionally water users have policed themselves. A neighbor with a senior water right would make calls on his upstream neighbors with junior rights to turn off their water.

“This didn’t usually happen until much later in the summer, like mid-to-late August,” said Scott Turner, Cowiche stream patroller. “This year’s flows have been low very, very early.”

If streamflows don’t improve, even more senior irrigators in these tributaries, whose rights date back to 1869, could be shut off well before the end of the irrigation season.

In providing perspective, Isley noted similar curtailments occurred in the mid-1980s, though much later in the year and in an era when water works were far less efficient and more water was diverted than is needed now.

“Even with modern efficiencies, there’s not enough water to meet these senior water right holders or supporting the streams for fish,” said Isley. “Water goes much further today, making this drought worse than the conditions we saw back in the 1980s when I first began this work.”

The state’s 1917 surface water code recognizes the legal concept of water right priority that in times of shortage, senior right holders have their water needs satisfied first, rather than all users sharing water proportionally.

Thousands of water rights in the Yakima River Basin comprising Kittitas and Yakima counties and parts of Benton County have court established priority dates associated with their rights to divert water from the river and its numerous tributaries. The Yakima River Basin has 500,000 acres of irrigated cropland.

The Yakama Nation’s time immemorial rights are the oldest water rights in the Yakima Basin, and the earliest settlement rights date to 1852. Most water rights were established in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation claimed all unappropriated water for development of the Yakima Irrigation Project. Water users whose rights date after May 10, 1905 have been ordered to stop watering since April when rationing of water from the project was announced. 

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