Local farmers and members of the agriculture industry gathered to talk about options during drought seasons at the Kittitas Valley Event Center Armory on May 8. Multiple organizations were on hand, including representatives from the Washington Department of Ecology, Trout Unlimited, Kittitas Conservation District, Washington Water Trust and the Kittitas Reclamation District.

Department of Ecology Water Resources Program Section Manager Trevor Hutton was on hand to present information gathered by the Bureau of Reclamation that displayed current snow water equivalents and reservoir levels.

“This year’s a little bit different than we typically see in the Yakima Basin,” he said. “A lot of times the Yakima Basin is sort of all or nothing in drought. The whole basin is in drought, the prorated districts would be part of that. This year, the way the weather patterns came through, they had this southwestern swing and really it was Kittitas County that missed out on a lot of the storm systems that came through.”

Hutton said those conditions were what led the state to declare a drought emergency in the Upper Yakima Basin, which is below the 75-percent water supply threshold needed for a declaration.

“Really, the hardship this year comes from the fact that we know a lot of these vulnerable tributaries are going to be really thin on water as the summer heats up,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that drought declaration was proactive in such a way that Fish and Wildlife, KRD, all the folks that are working hard to maintain habitat, fish values in the tributary streams would be protected.”

Hutton said the declaration also gives entities the ability to expedite temporary water rights transfers between holders. With prorationing being below 100 percent, he said some irrigators might need to use their rights to irrigate different parts of land at different rates.

“We can work on all that stuff,” he said.

EXPECTED TO ERODE

Although the water supply has fluctuated in the mid 70-percent range over the last few weeks, Hutton said he expects the number to erode with hot weather spells in the region.

“There might be some questions about emergency wells and the program that Ecology runs,” he said. “That program is designed in such that if we fall below 70 percent, that’s where we start to feel that the hardship designation is met. If we have irrigators that are unable to get their full supply from their irrigation district, we would start up the state program to run that.”

Hutton said that program requires mitigation to ensure that impacts don’t accrue to the Yakima River over time, and that the mitigation process costs money. As a result, he said mitigation fees would be collected during times when the program needs to run, 2015 being a recent example.

“In the event we get to below 70 percent prorationing here in the Yakima Basin, that’s something we anticipate running again,” he said. “With mitigation fees, it’s going to look a little different, but we’re prepared for that. At this point, we’re holding steady and keeping a close eye on the forecast.”

If the water supply threshold stays above the 70 percent prorationing levels, Hutton said farmers have other choices they can make to supplement their water allocation for the summer.

“The private water market is another opportunity for you to purchase or lease water that you could move to your farm for the year,” he said. “If you were to bring in a drought application with private mitigation rather than the sort of state-sponsored program, we would evaluate that. We would have that same level of prioritization, but that’s kind of a tough call to make. Is your irrigation district supply going to be enough to get you through or not. Personal calls to make on that.”

CONSERVATION DISTRICT PERSPECTIVE

Kittitas Conservation District Manager Anna Lael said drought years are nothing new for the conservation district. She said the district has provided technical assistance and services during past droughts, and that similar services are available this year if needed by farmers. She said the conservation commission can provide funding for irrigation and water management plans, but that they don’t get many requests for that mainly because valley farmers have been dealing with issues such as drought for a long time.

“I don’t know that our planning will add a lot to it, unless you’re someone who’s relatively new to irrigating,” she said. “We’re more than happy to come out and meet folks and talk about crop needs and the water that you’ll need to meet those crop needs and help you put together a plan.”

Another service the district provides is the ability to help with soil and moisture monitoring. Lael said the district office has soil moisture sensors they can loan out to farmers. Another service the district provides is geographic information system mapping for farmers. She said this service originally resulted in a heavy workload for the district, but the process has become easier with developing technology.

“If you would like a map done of your property, we’re happy to do that as well,” she said.

Lael said the district also performs water measurements in creeks for landowners, and that they do this even in non-drought years. She pointed out, however that if there are issues that arise from water measurements, they tend to fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Ecology.

“We are not the referees and we are not the enforcers,” she said. “We’ve been able to help sometimes some of the ditch associations and canal companies with taking measurements for them, monitoring stream flows for folks who need it.”

If drought funding becomes a reality this summer, Lael said the district has put in a request to fund the purchase of additional flow monitoring equipment.

“That will make it easier to monitor flows in larger canals,” she said.

Another district funding request involves the purchase of a drone with multispectral cameras. If the drone is funded, Lael said the district could use it to aid farmers in photograph crops and perform assessments of irrigation water application.

“A quicker way to figure out to not go somewhere,” she said. “Whatever it is that’s making uneven water application, to try to help locate those issues and fix them quickly.”

Although it won’t be directly applicable to this year’s drought season, Lael said the district is working on cost sharing programs with farmers to improve irrigation efficiency. Projects within that program includes insulating pipelines, conversion from flood irrigation to sprinkler systems. She said the funding mainly comes through the Washington Conservation Commission. Other funding sources Lael pointed out are the Water Conservation Subcommittee as part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan and the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. She said the district has a regional conservation partnership program with the USDA, and that the partnership essentially coves all irrigated lands within the county.

“This is specific money form the Natural Resources Conservation Service just for our county,” he said.

Comments

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.