Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Drought impacts

Yakima Valley farmers struggle now, wonder about next year

By Joye Redfield-Wilder, communications manager, Central Region

The Drought of 2015 hasn’t run out of steam yet, and the final tally of its costs remain. Still, the impacts can be seen and felt across Washington.

At a recent meeting of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan workgroup,* farmers shared how this year’s drought has affected them personally.

In Kittitas County, cattle herds are being reduced in size with calves being shipped off and sold early because pasturelands are dry and no second cutting of hay will be made.
Cattle graze on dry Timothy hay field because no second cutting this year
Photo by Melissa Hansen
Fields that should be green are now brown and the Timothy grass hay has been forced into premature dormancy.  This will lead to damage to the plants and will also result in invasive grasses taking over in the fields, which will significantly disrupt the farmer’s crop rotation schedules.  The drought creates conditions in the fields that are tough to respond to once the weeds take hold as a result of the lack of water. It will take at least three years for the fields to recover from the 2015 drought and that is only if there is a good water supply next season.

“The green fields along I-90 are deceptive,” said Badger Pocket farmer Mark Hansen. The majority of the fields that are bordering the I-90 freeway along the Kittitas Valley floor are irrigated with senior rights and are receiving a full supply of water this year. His land, irrigated by the Kittitas Reclamation District (KRD), is above the valley floor. KRD had to turn off the supply more than two months early because of the drought.

Even with investments in sprinkler pivots and drip irrigation, there’s just not enough water to spread around. So KRD decided to run its water early to get at least one cutting of hay out of deliveries. This resulted in the early shut off because of the short supply. The Kittitas Valley Timothy hay is prized around the world.

Crops of apples and grapes are languishing, producing reduce-sized apples and berries in the 90-mile stretch of the Roza Irrigation District in the Lower Yakima Valley. There, water managers withheld deliveries in May to stretch supplies later in the fall when perennial crops – wine and juice grapes, apples and pears – need it most.

To some degree it paid off.  Shortly after the Roza canals were drained and a statewide drought was officially declared in May, Mother Nature delivered some rain to the Lower Valley. The storm, however, didn’t provide any relief to Kittitas Reclamation District lands in the upper Basin.

Apple trees dry and brittle for lack of water on Roza land near Prosser
Photo courtesy of Roza Irrigation District
Many irrigators depend on the runoff known as return flows to water crops and even residential lawns. That’s water that returns to the system after being delivered to other farms located higher up in the Yakima Basin.

Implementation of water efficiencies coupled with less water in the first place results in far less water trickling down to Kennewick Irrigation District, at the lower end of the Yakima River irrigation delivery system operated by the US Bureau of Reclamation.

Ditch riders are making sure people get their fair share and that others aren’t taking more than their share. Water schedules have been advertised via news and social media outlets in Kennewick and code enforcers cited residential customers not adhering to watering limitations – some 500 citations or warnings issued this year.

Tight running operations required advance planning by irrigation districts and farmers alike.

Prosser farmer Jim Willard might be a typical example of the need to be nimble. He fallowed 18 percent of his farm this year – meaning no water went to a crop on that much land. He had 10 percent of his crops planted in new juice grapes and apples. The baby grapes got by with about six inches of water total.

For the young plantings of apples he dug up a new watering system and added drip irrigation to make the water go farther – all at his own expense. Larger trees struggled with less water because their broader root base is accustomed to overhead sprinklers.

Willard has a deep well and supplemental water rights he can tap into during drought. It’s been 10 years since he’s used the well and he found the water table had dropped. Many of his neighbors faced obstacles when turning on their drought wells for the first time in a decade  -- pumps needed new motors and gear boxes needed replacing – all taking a big hit on budgets. It cost one of his neighbors $1,300 a day to run the diesel generator to pump the water from his well. On top of that, farmers were required to pay a drought water use mitigation fee for the first time in order to use the water. The fee paid half the cost to lease water to offset impacts to the aquifer and the river. Fifty-percent of the program funded by the state.

Water markets were tight this year, making it difficult and costly to "buy" water from others who would forgo growing a crop.  

Going forward, bankers are examining farmers’ water rights, what the predicted water supply might be and making or not making loans based on those risks. “What we need is a supplemental system and snowfall,” Willard said. “I’m concerned about the quality and quantity of crops – we won’t know until we start adding things up in November’’ if this is a profitable year or not.

More on Washington's drought at

*In response to drought and climate change, the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project (YRBWEP) Working Group is seeking long-term water solutions through storage and environmental enhancement projects spelled out in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. The Washington Legislature approved  legislation to jump-start the plan  in 2013. In July of this year, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell proposed Congressional legislation to support plan projects.

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