While drought conditions are not as dire as in 2015 when the Roza Irrigation District turned off its system for three weeks to conserve water, experts say this year is shaping up to be a dry one.
“Given the condition of where we were at the start of the season, we’re not in bad shape, but we’re heavily prorated,” said Doug Call, river operator for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Terrace Heights. “There’s always a chance that the weather might give us a break.”
But state officials and growers are bracing for a hot, dry summer that could affect crop yields as well as contribute to an extensive wildfire season.
“It’s about as dry as it should be at the end of July, and we’re in the end of June,” said state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who oversees the state Department of Natural Resources and its firefighting operations.
Reclamation officials say a combination of low reservoir levels at the end of last year’s irrigation season, lower-than-normal snowfall and rain in the Cascades and a warmer-than-usual spring have resulted in lower water levels in reservoirs and rivers.
Gov. Jay Inslee has declared drought emergencies in 27 watersheds, including the Upper and Lower Yakima and the Naches. Drought emergencies are called when water supply conditions are below 75 percent of normal and there is potential for economic impact.
As of June, Yakima River Basin water supplies are prorated to 72 percent for junior water rights holders, such as the Roza Irrigation District, Call said. The forecast will be updated Wednesday,July 3, Call said, noting that there had been about 5.5 inches of rain in the mountains this month.
In the 2015 drought, allotments were at 44 percent in late June, prompting the Roza district to shut down its canal for three weeks to ensure enough water for late crops.
Junior rights holders are those who claimed a right to use water after May 10, 1905. Their water allotments can be reduced or even withheld completely to ensure that senior rights holders get their full allotment.
Urban Eberhart, manager of the Kittitas Reclamation District, told a legislative committee last week that his district is bracing for a 70 percent allotment. Kittitas is anticipating ending the irrigation season in mid-September, which Eberhart said is about a month earlier than normal.
As part of its response to drought conditions, Kittitas County will lease some of its water rights to irrigators who need extra water. The county holds more than 157 acre-feet of consumptive-use water that will be made available this year, according to a news release from the county. The county will auction off the water rights on July 9 in 25 acre-foot blocks at a minimum bid price of $240 per acre-foot, the release said.
Eberhart said the county’s water was purchased to meet demands for future growth and can be tapped in a drought emergency.
Jeff Marti, the state Department of Ecology’s water resources planner, told lawmakers he’s heard anecdotal reports about reduced hay yields because of water rationing, with some farmers expecting to forgo additional cutting later in the year.
Another area of concern is the state’s fruit industry, which saw more than $100 million in losses during the 2015 drought, according to an Ecology report.
“Apples, cherries and pears are all perennial crops,” Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, told lawmakers in Ellensburg last week. “We cannot allow orchards to lie fallow during a drought year.”
Drought-related losses do not simply manifest themselves as lost fruit, DeVaney said. A lack of water and too much sun creates defects that reduce the quality of the fruit, which means that growers and packing houses cannot get top prices for the produce.
Growers are taking steps to more efficiently use water, DeVaney said, such as using trellises to plant more trees per acre and covering orchards with cloth to diffuse sunlight and provide some cooling.
Reduced water flows can affect trout and salmon, as water heats up and holds less oxygen, said Kiza Gates, a research scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. She said temperatures on the Yakima River by the Parker Dam are more than 70 degrees.
Low water levels can also cause fish to be stranded in pools along rivers, Gates said.
During the 2015 drought, the state spent $300,000 to install a well at the Naches hatchery to provide additional water for the fish. As the sole source of catchable trout for Yakima, Kittitas and Benton counties, the Naches hatchery contributes $53 million to the region’s economy, Gates said.
The drought also is a factor in wildfires, with some popping up along the west side of the state, Franz said. So far this year, DNR crews have handled almost 700 fires of varying sizes. The largest was the fire that burned in Grant County recently, Franz said.
And she said the weather conditions do not bode well for the fire season, as temperatures are expected to be above normal with below-average rain through October.
“A lot of our firefighters are saying this is the danger zone that leads to significant fires, those that are treacherous and dangerous,” Franz said.
DNR is stepping up its efforts at both preventing wildfires and responding to those that start. The department has hired 550 seasonal firefighters and completed training for 1,500 firefighters with state and federal agencies, including the Washington National Guard.
There are also six single-engine Fire Boss air tankers available, along with eight helicopters, which will be deployed to bases in Wenatchee, Ellensburg, Omak, Mount Vernon, Vancouver and Yakima to be able to respond quickly, Franz said.
She said it was a lesson learned from the 2014-16 fire seasons.
“Our goal is that we’re not competing with other states for resources,” Franz said.
And DNR is stepping up its forest health program, with plans to clear dead and dying trees and reduce fuel loads on 50,000 acres this year. Franz said the goal is to treat 70,000 acres annually.