Drought Forces Large Group Of Yakima Valley Farmers To Turn Off The Spigot

May 12, 2015

The Roza Irrigation District in Eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley is shutting off the water for two weeks because of drought. About a billion dollars in crops are on the line.

The spigot is turning off at a mini-dam on an artificial river. This is the main Roza Irrigation District canal that draws water from high reservoirs. It has a gate that controls the flow of water.

Federal water managers are slowly squeezing the water down.

“What’s happening today is Roza Irrigation District is basically budgeting their water supply,” engineer Chris Lynch explained. “They’ve decided to turn their water off for a portion of May to help save water for the hotter part of the season.”

In more than 70 years, this is only the fourth time the district has had to do this.

‘We have to cope and hope’

The Roza Irrigation District, headquartered in Sunnyside, Washington, is 95 miles end-to-end. Nearly 2,000 farmers on the Roza will get less than half of their normal water this summer. In the world of water rights, they’re what are called “junior” rights holders. It means they’re near the back of the line. Right next to the fish.

“People I know have orchards on the Roza,” Lynch said. “We have some hopes for projects that might alleviate some of these things. But the way it is right now we have to cope and hope that the following year we recover.”

Roza Irrigation District Manager Scott Revell said last week the water shortage really snapped into focus at a meeting he had for farmers. He said afterward, the crowd didn’t disperse. Farmers went outside and started cutting water deals over the hoods of their pickups.

“A lot of people were working their friends and neighbors and in some cases even their relatives for what water could be obtained from where and for how much,” Revell said.

Expensive new irrigation systems

A bit downstream and down valley, is where the smaller canal laterals stretch out to feed individual farms and fields. That’s where farmer Jim Willard lives at his dome house amid the vines.

He was overseeing a dozen-man crew digging down to irrigation pipes along new apple tree rows. He just put in this expensive system last year. But they are already changing it. It’s going from sprinklers to a highly precise drip line.

“It takes some work,” Willard said. ”A significant amount of time and expense, yes. But one of those decisions I made for this year.”

Willard thinks this new system will save about a half of the water he would usually pour on these 2-year-old apple trees. But this new expensive system only covers 14 of his 500 acres.

Worrying about the bottom line

And in a year when everyone needs water here, a bit extra to get by is going to get expensive.

Normally, a farmer on the Roza pays about $130 to cover an acre with three feet of water. Now, the district is offering $500 for just two feet -- and there aren’t many takers.

“There is a lot more cost going into this year, than a normal water year,” Willard said. “And you worry about what your bottom line will look like at the end of the year.”

Some farmers likely won’t make it through this summer’s test. For now, managers and farmers alike are counting down the days without water for the Roza. Their eyes often scan the horizon -- anxious for gathering clouds.