Archie den Hoed’s house sits above rolling agricultural land in Grandview.
Looking south from his home, grapevines and apple trees line the hill leading down to the Roza Irrigation District canal, which snakes northwest from near Benton City to Ellensburg. The earth is green — full of life and growing plants.
Turning the other direction, hillsides have turned brown under the heat of the sun. The edge of his property sits on the divide between Roza Irrigation District and land that falls outside the district. He had to purchase some private water rights to keep his gardens and yard irrigated, but the vast majority of his 160 acres of land fall within the Roza district.
“If there was no Roza Irrigation District, or no irrigation in the Valley, everything would look like that out there,” den Hoed said, pointing to the brown hills. “There’d be nothing.”
But even within the Roza territory, there are limits to how much water can be used this year. As a junior water rights district — or area claiming right to use water after May 10, 1905 — Roza has just 72 percent of its normal allotment available because of this year’s drought.
On Oct. 1, the water year kicked off with below-normal levels in the Yakima River Basin’s reservoir system. Winter mountain runoff was less than normal, as was snowfall in the Cascades. A drought emergency was declared by Gov. Jay Inslee.
As the weather continues to warm, pressure on the water season is also mounting. Two Roza Irrigation District farmers reflected what irrigation on their property looks like in a normal year — and how the drought is panning out so far.
Archie den Hoed
Roughly 70 acres of den Hoed’s land is covered in apple trees. Jazz and Envy apples for New Zealand company Enza are just smaller than a fist.
Another 90 acres are filled with rows of grapevines. About a third of the grapes are Riesling, another third is Syrah and the remainder are bits of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and merlot. They all go to Chateau St. Michelle, west of the Cascades.
Drip irrigation is already watering the apple trees. The water emitters on pipes lining each row are spaced roughly 24 inches apart and are just bigger than the point of a pen. They drip slowly onto the ground, and the roots absorb the water.
“It’s about as water-efficient as you can get,” den Hoed said, explaining that drip irrigation avoids wasting water on the walkway between rows.
Apple trees demand consistent watering, so these drip irrigators are already running three times a week for 12 hours, collectively applying roughly 15 gallons of water per minute per acre to the soil.
Grapevines require about half that, and it’s too early in the season to begin irrigating them, except for plants in rocky soil, den Hoed says. When it gets hotter, they’ll begin receiving drip irrigation. The apple trees also will require overhead sprinklers to keep the apples from burning.
On a normal year, den Hoed would be allotted 3 acre-feet of water — the same amount a square-acre pool would require to be 3 feet deep — from Roza Irrigation District. He usually uses 80 percent of that to feed his crops.
“That’s about 2.4 feet. So this year, the closer (the junior-water rights restriction) gets to 70 percent, it’s going to present a hardship. Because obviously you’ve got to make choices,” he said.
“We do have a couple of supplemental wells, but we use them as a last resort, because of problems with declining aquifers in some instances, and they’re a lot more expensive to run,” den Hoed said.
So far, his land isn’t suffering from the water limitations. In 2015, it was another story. Roza water users saw only 47 percent of their normal allotment, and he was forced to run wells, spending significant amounts of money to make it through the season.
“Once we start getting hot, we get into the heart of the season, I think you’re going to see a lot more demand, and that’s when it gets a lot more critical,” he said of this year. “Right now, it’s not that big of a deal. We’ve been through plenty (of droughts) before.”
Following the Roza canal northeast, Jason Shehan’s dairy farm in Sunnyside has 6,000 cows, half of which are rotating around the clock being milked. The other half are young.
Dairy cattle are Shehan’s main business. But he also raises corn, alfalfa and triticale to feed the cows — as well as some wine grapes. He farms about 1,000 acres.
“We can raise about two-thirds of the forage we need, and then we buy forage from our neighbors,” said Shehan, who is on the Roza irrigation board.
Roughly half of his land falls within Roza Irrigation District. The other half is within Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, which has senior water rights.
If pressure on water use in the Roza district increases, he can’t apply water from his Sunnyside rights. Instead, he’d have to consider cutting off water to the corners of fields that the main pivot irrigators don’t reach, for starters.
Already, he’s gotten creative.
During the 2015 drought, he said he banded together with neighboring farmers to share water based on need. If one farmer wanted to stop spraying water on some fields, for example, another farmer would increase use so that the collective use remained steady, keeping the canal level consistent.
“We’ve got one guy that’s kind of in charge of who needs what water,” he said. “We’re able to work with each other, getting our needs covered.”
The group did have to make different crop choices, but working together helped address the damage, he said.
The following three years, the Valley was spared a drought. But when water restrictions in Roza were announced again this year, “That’s when the phone calls started between neighbors, saying, ‘We’ve got to figure this out again.’”
This year, he said, he’s getting by. But if the restrictions tighten below 70 percent of water use, he said that might be another story.
“Wouldn’t want (restrictions) much tighter than it is. But we’re getting by,” he said. “It’s more of the creativity that’s getting us by. It’s not because we’re getting enough water. We’re just being very creative about how we’re using it.”
He already uses the most efficient irrigation system he can, he said, having switched years ago to pivot sprinklers from reel irrigation that drenched the soil less evenly. The pivots use roughly two-thirds the amount of water the reel system did.
This change also allowed him to begin growing multiple crops throughout the year and stop tilling the land — a practice that dries the soil. The field outside his office hasn’t been tilled in five years because of this system, he said.
Roza can’t get more water efficient, between upgrading irrigation systems and sharing water, in Shehan’s opinion. “We’ve moved the bar as far as we can, from an efficiency standpoint,” he said.
Den Hoed echoed his sentiments. The only way to make sure water users get through droughts, he said, was to have more senior water users begin using irrigation systems like pivots and drips, and to create more reservoirs for storage.
“That’s really what we need,” said den Hoed. “We just simply need more storage.”