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.
SUNNYSIDE, Yakima County — Ryan Schilperoort expects to receive less than half of his normal irrigation water from the canal that winds through these desert lands.
But he can’t cut back on his crop acreage. He planted his Concord grape vines years ago, and they must have water through the summer months to survive and produce fruit for juices, jellies and jams.
So, he’s rationing.
Schilperoort irrigates each plant for shorter amounts of time. And he drives his four-wheeler down farm roads graveled with cherry pits to watchdog the water as it moves through the furrows dug into this sandy soil. He wants a sufficient flow to reach the end of the long green rows, with a slight trickle to spare.
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“I’m trying to maximize the use of my water as far as it will go,” Schilperoort said. “You cannot waste any.”
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. The prospects for the summer appeared even grimmer in early May but improved modestly after strong rains.
Some, such as Schilperoort, are cautiously optimistic. Through careful water management, they think they can make it to harvest time without stunted crops or long-term damage to vines and orchard trees.
Others already are beginning to tally losses that they expect to mount over the summer.
“This corn is trying to come up but it should be twice as high,” said Andre Curfman, as he walked through a ragged field of stressed plants. “It will recover some but won’t reach its full potential. This is getting ugly fast.”
This year’s problems have not been caused by drought, at least not in the classic sense. Total precipitation was roughly normal this past winter.
But exceedingly warm temperatures meant much of it fell as rain, rather than as snow that serves as a frozen reservoir for Yakima basin farmers. The year was so out of whack that the peak river runoff, normally in late spring, occurred in February after a large, warm downpour in the mountains.
By May, Washington’s snowpack was 9 percent of normal, spurring a statewide drought declaration from Gov. Jay Inslee.
This warm winter was an aberration compared to the weather patterns of the past century.
But scientists say it foreshadows what lies ahead several decades from now as climate change — driven by carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels — gains momentum, and scarce snowpacks could become chronic occurrences.
From December through February, Pacific Northwest temperatures averaged 5.6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than those from 1970 through 1999, according to an analysis by the National Climatic Data Center.
If use of fossil fuels keeps growing at a fast pace, such warm winters may be typical in the 2050s, according to an analysis of 10 climate models by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group. If the world slows its use of fossil fuels, then that kind of winter might not be common until the 2080s,
“I talk about this year as a dress rehearsal for the future,” says Guillaume Mauger, a UW climate researcher. “If you look at precipitation, it was just like any other year. But the temperature was far above what we’ve seen in the 20th century — and that’s exactly what we expect of climate change.”
The effects of warm winter temperatures and low snowpack vary greatly across the state.
Seattle, for example, gets its water largely from reservoirs that can be refilled even in low snow years by capturing rain from two watersheds. There’s no expectation of shortages this year, and studies indicate that water supplies will be sufficient even in 2060 as climate change reduces snowfall, according to Paul Fleming, manager of the climate resiliency group with Seattle Public Utilities.
On the Olympic Peninsula, farmers are being paid to forego using some water so it can stay in rivers for fish.
And in much of the state’s mountains, the lack of snow could increase fire risks, especially in higher elevation forests that will be free of snow for much longer periods of time.
In the Yakima basin, the lack of snow causes major stress.
Snow melt in a normal year provides cooler water that helps salmon and steelhead as they journey hundreds of miles inland to spawn. Sockeye, the focus of a major basin restoration effort, could face some of the biggest problems this year because their return typically peaks in hot summer months.
Farmers draw on five mountain reservoirs for irrigation, but they can store only about 40 percent of the water needed to sustain harvests in one of the most intensely irrigated regions of the nation. The rest of their water, in a normal year, comes from the melting snowpack that feeds directly into stream systems and helps replenish the reservoirs as the summer progresses.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation began tapping into the reservoirs some 10 weeks earlier than normal and expects to drain those by the end of the harvest season.
The shortage hits hard on those who hold junior water rights, which means their supply gets reduced in years when there’s not enough water to go around because their lands were developed later for irrigation than other acreage. Those with junior rights include Schilperoort and some 1,700 other farmers who get water from the basin’s Roza Irrigation District.
On May 5, district officials convened a tense meeting in Sunnyside, warning farmers that their irrigation water allocation could drop as low as 35 percent of normal and the flows could run out in late August.
They struggled to come up with an equitable plan to share the pain. Eventually, they decided to shut down the canal system for part of May to keep water running through the peak heat of late summer, when apple trees would be loaded with fruit.
Roza’s bleak situation was part of the reason that the state Department of Agriculture on May 11 came up with a forecast for a $1.2 billion statewide crop loss. That estimate assumed half the value of crops on the Roza would be lost this year, four times higher than crop loss forecasts for most of the state.
But during the three weeks that the Roza water was shut off, farmers caught some breaks.
Just days after the canal system went dry, a storm dumped more than an inch of water at Yakima— nearly double the average precipitation for the entire month. This helped keep the forecast for water cutbacks to 44 percent of normal.
Also during the shutdown, Roza district officials purchased a significant amount of water from other users.
Roza officials now expect to provide irrigation water deep into September, although at severely reduced rates, according to Scott Revell, district manager for the Roza.
Revell says the state forecasts for the drought crop losses may have been accurate in early May. But with the improved situation, he thinks they are now too high.
State Department of Agriculture officials currently have no plans to revise that forecast.
“If the figure is incorrect, and the losses are significantly less than $1.2 billion, I don’t think there will be anyone happier than the Department of Agriculture,” said Hector Castro, a department spokesman.
To help compensate for their water shortages, some farmers are turning to wells that draw from aquifers.
Richard Dahlin, a cherry grower who feared that the Roza district cutoff might put his crop at risk, was able to spread some well water on his trees when they showed signs of wilt. This month, as his harvest got under way, he was happy with the first cherries.
“So far, so good. I think we’re going to be OK,” he said.
But drawing from wells isn’t a sustainable long-term fix. Some would dry up if they were used heavily each year. Moreover, the wells draw from aquifers that are tightly connected to the river system, so pumping can reduce surface flows.
“The major problem is that most of these wells are like straws sucking water from the river, and most of the water belongs to somebody else,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder, of the state Department of Ecology.
More than 300 wells are designated for emergency use only in years when farmers don’t receive their full irrigation allocations.
About 100 of the more recently drilled emergency wells must gain state approval to be put back to use. Farmers also must split the cost with the state to buy up water that can later be used to compensate for the impact of the emergency withdrawals.
That’s a considerable expense for farmers and taxpayers who help finance the state subsidy. The price of water is on the rise. State Department of Ecology officials report paying double what they did to lease water during the last big shortage back in 2005.
In the long term, a federal and state plan adapted after years of negotiations with tribes, farmers, environmentalists and others calls for $4.2 billion in projects to expand reservoir storage.
For those with junior rights, the big push has been to use the water more efficiently.
To reduce evaporation and leakage, the Roza district since 1983 has invested $28.7 million to replace 280 miles of small canals with pipes, and the job should be finished in another 15 years.
Plenty of farmers also have installed more efficient watering systems. But many, including Schilperoort, still rely at least partly on older furrow irrigation systems.
For Schilperoort, a former fertilizer-company field man who took over his father’s farm four years ago, paying for improvements from the earnings of his 140 acres is a slow process.
“Sprinkler and drip irrigation is the future,” he says. “But it just takes time.”
Curfman, whose family farms about 5,000 acres, also relies largely on furrow irrigation. But grappling this year with a 40 percent cutback in water from the Wapato Irrigation Project, he has come up with a way to improve efficiency.
At great expense, he is firing up a network of 12 diesel-guzzling pumps to suck up excess water that drains off his fields. This water is then pumped into storage ponds for reuse.
“The problem is that you may get water one day, and then you may not get it for three weeks,” Curfman said. “There’s no rhyme or reason or justification. We set up the pumps so we can control our water the best we can.”
Still, Curfman won’t be able to get anywhere near a normal amount of water to his crops. If it turns into a hot summer, with temperatures often going above 100 degrees, the reduced watering will hit the plants a lot harder.
For farmers across the basin, there also are concerns about next year.
If there isn’t a decent winter snowpack, heavily drawn-down reservoirs won’t be able to refill. That would mean greater cuts in irrigation allotments in 2016 and far higher crop losses.
“This year is something to worry about. But it’s going to be next year that’s going to be the difficult one if we don’t get snow,” Schilperoort said.