Apr 7, 2007
Washington State on Drought Watch

The irrigation outlook for Washington state this year is bad – one of the worst ever.

Unless there are massive rainstorms during the spring and summer, there’s not going to be enough water. Authorities are predicting a severe drought for the Northwest.

On March 10, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a statewide drought emergency, based on precipitation levels that are at or near record lows and mountain snow pack averages that are about 25 percent of normal. Many rivers and creeks on both sides of the Cascades are flowing at or near record-low levels for this time of year, according to the governor’s office.

“While water shortages won’t affect all areas of the state in precisely the same way, it seems very likely that all areas of our state will experience at least some level of drought this year,” Gregoire said. “We need to start taking action now, and all of us need to be part of the solution.”

The governor’s emergency declaration gave the state Department of Ecology permission to use several tools to ease the economic and environmental hardships that are expected to come from the drought. These include emergency water permits, temporary transfers of water rights and funding from the state’s Drought Emergency Account, according to the governor’s office.

State agencies and growers will now have more flexibility when it comes to water use. Growers could get permission to pump more water from existing wells, could tap into emergency wells, or could drill new wells. Water could be purchased or leased from users willing to sell it. Under normal conditions, those things either couldn’t be done or would be difficult to do, said Rich Koenig, an Extension specialist with Washington State University (WSU).

Most irrigation issues will be worked out on a local level, depending on the water supplies available. Some areas, like the Yakima Valley, will be hit harder than others, Koenig said.

Irrigation districts

The Yakima River flows through its namesake valley and supplies the valley’s residents with water. The Yakima carries much less water than the nearby Columbia River, so a drought will have a more pronounced effect on those who rely on the Yakima for irrigation, said Jack Watson, WSU Extension educator.

The valley is divided into irrigation districts. Some districts, those with senior water rights, have first dibs and stand a good chance of getting what water they need. Districts with junior water rights will get whatever’s left over, which won’t be much if the drought is as bad as predicted, Watson said.

The region needs 3 to 4 acre-feet of water to bring a crop in during a typical year, but can get away with less using common tricks, like mulch. Wells are used more often in a year like this, but they’re expensive, said Dana Faubion, an Extension agent.

There’s still an opportunity for more moisture to fall, Faubion said.

“We had a nice dusting of snow over the weekend,” he said. “It doesn’t really do much, but it makes us feel better.”

Local growers have been through droughts plenty of times, so they know what to expect. August will be the worst month, Faubion said.

“We know it’s going to be bad for certain people, but I’m not ready to call it a disaster yet,” he said. “It’s going to be an interesting year, to say the least.”

The region faced a similar predicament a few years ago. The 2001 drought turned out better than many predicted, but expectations for this year are even lower. Many growers were forced to choose which crops to irrigate and which to ignore four years ago, and might be forced to do so again. Economic considerations will decide where the water goes, Watson said.

Apples are one of the valley’s main crops, and could be the most difficult to protect since they’re harvested late in the season. Other crops, like grapes, seem to weather dry conditions a bit better. At any rate, water users are still crossing their fingers for a change in the weather, Watson said.


The Roza irrigation district is in the southern part of the Yakima Valley. There are 1,700 landowners in the district, and 72,000 acres of apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, hops, pumpkins, squash, asparagus, corn, grain corn, alfalfa hay and other crops. Roza has junior water rights, said Tim Collett, the district’s assistant manager.

Growers are buying water from senior right-holders in nearby districts. Many will use all their available water on permanent crops, or use supplementary wells, Collett said.

“Growers are better off if they pool their water together with other landowners,” he said. “A lot of them are doing it on their own.”

Roza farmer Mike Miller sits on the district’s board of directors and is heavily involved in irrigation decisions. His farm grows asparagus, winegrapes and Concord grapes on 1,300 acres. He’s learned important lessons from past droughts. According to his calculations, if moisture levels continue to be low, the district won’t be able to deliver the usual amount of water to its growers this year.

“Because we’ve been through this so many times, I expect we’ll be OK, but this one’s a little bit more serious than any we’ve faced,” Miller said. “I’m a little bit more fearful.”

The key is to collect as much water as you can, and preserve as much as you can, because you don’t know when more will be available, he said.

“Every decision is more critical,” he said. “It’s like walking on eggshells.”

Miller has made tough irrigation decisions in the past. To use water more efficiently, he converted 90 percent of his farm to drip irrigation, installed ponds on his property to store extra liquid, and gravitated away from crops that need more water, like mint and corn.

“With our backup systems, we should weather the storm better than most,” he said.

Farmers that grow tree fruits, like apples and cherries, will be in worse shape, because the trees need a lot of water, Miller said.

“They have a large capital outlay,” he said. “They’re at risk with the water supply that’s forecasted.”

Western Washington won’t be hit as hard as the Yakima Valley, but authorities predict it will still feel the effects of a drought.

John Belisle owns a farm in Lynden, Wash., on the western side of the state. He grows apples, pears, pumpkins and tomatoes. His precipitation level is lower than usual, but he’s not that worried. He uses water from a well to irrigate his fields, and there’s still plenty of water in it.

“There’s no doubt it’s going to be dry, but we’re not impacted like the guys in the Eastern part of the state,” he said. “I’ve got green grass right now.”

For more information about the drought and how to deal with it, visit WSU’s Drought Alert Web Site, www.drought.wsu.edu.

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