On the aging Wapato project, which irrigates more than 120,000 acres across the Yakama Nation reservation, it’s easy to steal water.

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WAPATO, Yakima County — As the drought wears on and their crops fade, farmers Steve Bangs and Jeremy Waterman take to the road each day to look for signs of water theft in other parts of the Wapato Irrigation Project that are still green and flush with water.

They find plenty of suspicious activity. Gates are open when they should be locked shut. Ditches brim with water delivered to fields that appear to have their fill of this precious asset.

When they see someone they suspect of wrongdoing, they stop to confront them.

“We have put so many miles on our pickups,” Waterman said. “We have kind of become the water policeman.”


Related video: The Northwest’s snowpack drought

Thousands of Yakima basin farmers will be short of water this summer, in a year marked by a stunning lack of snow to feed a river that sustains crops worth more than $2 billion annually. Read more. (Steve Ringman & Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)    

Here, on the aging Wapato project, which irrigates more than 120,000 acres spread across the Yakama Nation reservation, it’s easy to steal water. And that’s happening, according to farmers and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials who help to run the irrigation project.

“It’s hard for me to quantify at this moment. But it’s occurring,” said Larry Nelson, who supervises irrigation systems for the Wapato. “We’re trying to catch them.

On the Wapato project, water theft is a corrosive element of the drought, embittering farmers like Bangs and Waterman at the far corners of the irrigation system who are unable to secure anywhere close to their shares.

It also is a symptom of broader problems in the Wapato, which is the largest irrigation project in the Yakima Basin. It is run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has been unable over the years to maintain the irrigation system or enforce discipline on those who use it.

The project includes some of the farmers hardest hit by this year’s drought, which began when a warm winter wiped out much of the snowpack that irrigates their fields here. Recent searing hot temperatures well above 100 degrees have put additional stress on crops.

In the decades ahead, climate change is forecast to shrink the snowpack and increase the challenges of irrigated agriculture in Yakima Basin. A bill submitted earlier this summer by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would authorize up to $49 million in federal money to make the Wapato network more efficient.

Some farmers say that improving management on the Wapato irrigation project is just as important as more funding.

“Our project will die without it. It’s as simple as that,” said Robert Halvorson, who farms 1,500 acres and serves on a Wapato project advisory board.

A long history

The Wapato is a key part of the broader Yakima Basin irrigation project developed by the Bureau of Reclamation, which has turned these arid lands into some of the most productive irrigated farm lands in the nation.

The Wapato includes a main canal, as well as hundreds of miles of smaller ditches that carry water to farms. Thousands of gates and other diversion structures help regulate the water flows.

The Wapato project began in 1904 as part of a broader federal effort to encourage Native Americans to begin farming. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Department of the Interior, runs the project.

Many of the Yakama sold or leased their lands, so most of the 1,900 water users today are not tribal members.

These farmers grow hops, wheat, silage corn, mint and many other crops that in a typical year soak up about 30 percent of all the irrigation water distributed through the broader Yakima Basin.

For decades, congressional investigators and Interior Department auditors have documented problems with the Wapato project as the project failed to collect enough money to keep up with repairs.

A 2006 federal Government Accountability Office report found that water users complained that staff performed sloppy or inadequate repairs. Meanwhile, staff complained of under funding and a “crisis style” of management.

The Wapato project now faces more than $138 million worth of postponed maintenance costs, the most — by far — of the 16 major BIA irrigation projects around the country, according to a GAO report released earlier this year.

Over the years, there has also been a big reduction in the project staff and an erosion of trust by farmers toward the BIA.

Last year, frustrated members of the water user’s advisory board ended up filing public-disclosure requests to get a better accounting of what happens to the millions of dollars in user fees they pay each year. “We are asking for what is going in, how much is going out and where is it going,” said Lon Inaba, an advisory-board member.

Rationing water

This summer, under the stress of drought, the fault lines in the Wapato system are showing.

The district has attempted to ration water so each farmer receives roughly two- thirds their normal allocation, but it is difficult to push that water through the entire system.

And, unlike other irrigation districts that modernized by installing flow meters and locks on the gates that release water, the Wapato district has failed to keep pace. So it is hard to accurately measure water flows for equitable distribution or secure all gates.

The long-running problems with managing the project also have complicated that effort.

Some farmers on the Wapato have bridled at having the gates locked, saying they need access because project staff are so slow to respond to requests for help. But this year, such access also enables farmers to take water they are not supposed to have.

Some of the gates have no locks. Some gates have locks and chains, but they are not fastened in a way that clamp down the gates. One gate viewed by The Seattle Times had a project lock, but it was secured by what appeared to be an unauthorized second lock that could allow access to the water.

Even when locks and chains are installed properly, there is no guarantee they will stay in place.

David Dog Sleep, a watermaster in charge of managing a section of the Wapato irrigation flows, said he’s trying to lock up all gates. But many times the locks are snipped off and discarded.

“It’s a battle out there,” Dog Sleep said Thursday at a project meeting in Wapato to discuss the problems with water distribution. “There are a lot of (locks) cut and laying out there, and we just keep finding them over and over.”

Stealing project water is a federal crime, and at the Thursday meeting project staff said they would be locking down the gates.

There were also calls for a crackdown on offenders, cutting off water or prosecuting them.

“You guys need to penalize these people,” Waterman. “Otherwise, it’s going to keep happening. Nobody is getting in trouble.”

Dog Sleep said he does try to track down violators.

“Someone says ‘so and so, is using so much water. But I can’t tell on them.’ I say, ‘you are going to have to.’ ”

Stanley Speaks, the BIA’s regional director in Portland, said that his staff is assessing the severity of the problem and will improve monitoring. At this point, he said there are no plans to try to pursue prosecutions of water theft. But Speaks said it might come to that.

“This is something we just can’t tolerate, and neither can the water users,” Speaks said. “We have to be able to spread the water, and make sure everyone gets their fair share.”

For Bangs and Waterman, even if more water arrives, it will be too late to save their seasons.

Bangs raises beef cows and has had so little water on his acreage that he has had to buy alfalfa feed for them.

“We don’t normally feed until mid-January,” Bangs said.

Waterman says the 6,000-acre farm he manages — El Rancho Bella Vista — has gotten well under 25 percent of its normal allocation of water. A 500-acre field of silage corn is so short of water that it may end up a near total loss.

Overall, Waterman expects the farm will lose more than $1 million, and there is no insurance to cover crop failure.

“It’s just horrible,” he said. “I think people have to be held accountable.”