Business & Real Estate

Irrigators keeping eye on weather amid drought declaration

Irrigation districts in the upper Yakima Basin — where a drought has been declared — are hoping for enough mountain precipitation this spring to stave off any serious water rationing.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a drought emergency for the upper basin after the Bureau of Reclamation reported a water forecast of only 74 percent supply in that area this season, one percentage point below the 75 percent that triggers such a declaration. The declaration allows irrigation districts and biologists to seek funds for closer monitoring and quicker initiation of drought relief programs.

The latest forecast drastically contrasts with early March, when this year's basinwide supply was predicted to be 90 percent of normal — an amount that hardly would have impacted farmers and fish.

But expected mountain precipitation didn't arrive in March, which caused the snowpack to fall further behind what is considered normal this time of year in the upper basin, said Chuck Garner, river operations supervisor for the Bureau of Reclamation.

"We had projected to get 80 to 85 percent precipitation in March," he said. "But when we went through March and didn't get what we predicted — we only got like 22, 23 percent — that dropped our prediction."

Irrigators and biologists are hoping for more precipitation in the right areas and that the weather remains relatively cool through the remainder of spring, said Perry Harvester, regional habitat program manager with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"All eyes now are really on how the snowpack comes off and some of the smaller tributaries where headwaters didn't get much snowpack," Harvester said. "The later that snowpack comes off, the better for fish, irrigators and everyone through the end of the season."

Preparedness

Irrigators and biologists welcomed the drought declaration because it enables funds to be allocated for immediate monitoring and planning, as well as a quicker response to water shortages.

The state Department of Ecology has requested an additional $2 million in relief funds this year in the event of a drought.

Such a response would be twofold — it would 1) launch water exchange programs to help growers with inferior water rights subject to rationing, and 2) divert water to parched streams for fish survival.

Examples of those programs include farmers leasing water from superior water right holders willing to part with some of their supply for a price and diverting water to parched streams for fish, said Urban Eberhart with the Kittitas Reclamation District.

Many growers have emergency drought wells they can pull from, but there are rules to follow when doing so, and mitigation fees must to be paid offset any impacts to river flows, Eberhart said.

"But that is something that needs to be in place in order for farmers to pull water to keep their crops alive," he said. "If this declaration wasn't in place, we would not be able to set up quickly enough."

Helping fish survive drought includes programs modifying fish channels to provide easier pathways for migrating fish to return to spawning areas, trucking juvenile salmon and steelhead across areas impassible due to hot weather and low flows, and temporarily suspending fishing in critical areas where fish are likely to become too stressed from drought conditions, Harvester said.

"They'll be so exhausted they'll be less likely to recover because oxygen (in the water) is so low," he said.

Too soon to panic

Only getting about 70 percent of water supply is something most growers can deal with so long as the supply doesn't decline too much below that, said Ric Valicoff, president of the Roza Irrigation District board.

"They've done this many times in the past," he said. "They know how to handle a low water year. It's when you get down to the 30 and 40 percents is when people start scrambling."

That happened in 2001 and more recently in 2015, when the Roza district leased about 4,600-acre-feet — a cost of about $1.15 million — from farmers with superior water rights in the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District. Emergency state funding paid for abut half the cost, said Roza district manager Scott Revell.

The leased water supplied the district for eight days, but that wasn't enough to avert a temporary shutdown, Revell said.

Leasing water this year may not be as viable as farmers have less idle land this year, Valicoff said.

"It's going to cost us a lot more money (to lease water) than it has in the past," he said.

At this time, water supply across the entire Yakima Basin is predicted to be 77 percent of normal, with the upper basin facing a lesser supply of 74 percent.

Part of the problem is that the lower and mid basins have seen more mountain snowpack than the upper basin in recent years.

Some are optimistic cool weather will hold and more precipitation is on the way.

"Right now it's snowing above 4,500 feet, and it's not warming up to the point where it's going to come off right away so it's looking good right now, Garner said.

Harvester said he's optimistically cautious. He points to the 2001 drought, when May temperatures reached 100 degrees, "which resulted in a drastic loss of snowpack and compounded drought situations later," he said.

Temperatures are expected to remain below normal — with lows in mid-30s and highs in the mid-60s through next week before warming up slightly above normal with temperatures reaching the high 60s, according to the National Weather Service in Pendleton, Ore.

"We've got weather right now that could be putting down snow in the high elevation — we don't know," Valicoff said.

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