Columbia, Snake rivers irrigation program an idea that holds water for wheat farmers

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 9, 2012 

Conserving water will allow T & R Farms to add up to 900 new acres of irrigated crops this year.

Without water, farmer Ron Reimann said he wouldn’t be able to grow much in the Franklin County area near the Snake River known as Poverty Flats.

Wheat is the only crop that could be grown dryland there, but terrible wheat yields is what got the area its name, he said.

Add irrigation water, and the yield goes from dismal to fantastic, said Reimann, a Port of Pasco commissioner, who grows wheat, apples, potatoes, sweet corn, field corn and peas.

Washington farmers produce the fourth most bushels of wheat in the nation. Wheat was valued at $1.1 billion for the state in 2011.

Adding irrigated acres will help all crops, though, not just wheat, officials said.

T & R Farms is one of the first to get involved in a new program created by the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, the Benton and Franklin conservation districts and the state Department of Ecology.

The concept sounds simple — farmers reduce water consumption by 17 percent through irrigation water management practices, such as using soil moisture and weather data to make decisions, and by using efficient irrigation hardware and an efficient delivery system, officials said.

In exchange, farmers get to apply half of the saved water to new acres and leave the other half in the river, benefiting agriculture and the environment, said Mark Nielson, manager for the Benton and Franklin conservation districts.

For Rob Mercer of Mercer Canyons — the first to sign on — it is working well.

Mercer Canyons was able to add irrigation to 1,500 acres on the border of Benton and Klickitat counties last year. The land is being used for wine grape vines, and Mercer also plans to add organic vegetables.

The almost 10 percent growth means Mercer has hired 150 more workers.

The downside to the program was having to establish the farm’s historical use of water, Mercer said.

Securing water rights

The state has a “use it or lose it” philosophy when it comes to water rights. Water that isn’t used for five years is given up.

“As we found different methods to save water, we lost it,” Reimann said.

Farmers are punished for being efficient, Nielson said. Instead, there should be an incentive to save water.

“Washington water law is one of the screwiest things you will come across,” he said.

Although farmers are using less water than they have a right to, they can’t just apply the excess water to addition acres without a legal change, Nielson said. Water rights are specific to maximum amount, location and number of acres.

Mercer said that when it came down to it, he decided it was better to give up some water rights on paper and get the benefit from irrigation water management than risk losing the benefit by not participating.

He took additional conservation measures to be eligible for the program: He added an automated irrigation scheduling system using information from soil moisture probes and infrared photos of the fields and put a low-pressure system on all of his sprinklers that reduces water use and electrical load.

Mercer said they look at the crop moisture profile from the first foot to the fourth foot to make decisions about water during the periods of vine growth where water is needed. The vines need about 12 to 18 inches of water, he said.

Ecology and the state have been good partners in this process, he said.

This is something that could help the Horse Heaven Hills, where dryland wheat farms get 25 to 40 bushels per acre, said Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. The Palouse, which has more rain, sees more than 100 bushels an acre.

Reimann, president of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators board, said with dryland, he could get maybe 30 bushels an acre of wheat. Add irrigation water, and the yield is closer to 120.

Reimann said he will decide each year what crops to use the additional water for. The number of new acres could be around 900, depending on the crop. But it will be new acres without using more water.

Wheat is a good rotation crop for irrigation farming because it is a short-term crop that allows the land to rest, he said.

Benton County has about 94,300 acres of wheat, while Franklin County has 76,900 and Walla Walla County has close to 191,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

More irrigated acres

If there are high levels of participation in the irrigation program, that could mean about 30,000 more irrigated acres up and down the whole river system, Olsen said.

Right now, the program could be possible for irrigators along the main stem of the Snake and Columbia rivers, Olsen said.

If irrigation water management was applied on 139,000 of the 270,000 acres of irrigated agricultural land in Benton County, 10.4 billion gallons of water would remain in the river and an equal amount could irrigate 12,000 more acres, according to a Pacific Groundwater Group study for the Franklin Conservation District, Nielson said.

In Franklin County, if 129,300 of the 250,000 irrigated farmland acres implemented irrigation water management, about 12.6 billion gallons would go back into the river and an equal amount could create 11,000 more irrigated acres, he said.

The economic impact of opening up irrigation to more acres is huge, Nielson said.

One acre of irrigated farmland adds about $3,250 a year in annual household income, Olsen said.

Derek Sandison, director of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River, said there are some places where the program won’t work. It would have to be a site-by-site decision.

For example, in the Yakima Basin, water not used by the plants or evaporated gets back to the river too quickly for it to make sense, he said.

So far, the area focused on has been the lower Snake River around the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers and the Horse Heaven Hills area, Sandison said. Both areas have finer soil textures, which means it takes longer for water to return to the river.

It makes sense to reduce the amount of water diverted from the river during the summer, when irrigators are using water, municipal needs are highest and the levels naturally are lower, Sandison said.

Farmers should see some benefit because they are paying for the improvements that conserve the water, he said.

The conservation district can certify that a farm is using irrigation water management, Nielson said. That means monitoring soil moisture and evapotranspiration, which is evaporation and transpiration. And the efficient hardware and delivery systems are a must.

Once certified, farmers working with the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association can apply for a water right transfer with the local water conservancy board so the water right can be applied to new acres, he said. That transfer must be approved by Ecology.

Farmers have to continue to do their conservation efforts, or the benefit of additional acreage is lost, Nielson said. And they have to provide information to the conservation district to document the effort, including infrared photos of their fields and the soil moisture data.

To move to a large scale, Sandison said they have to show that they can ensure what actually happens is what is proposed. There has to be a system in place that makes people comfortable that there are checks and balances.

Ecology still is working on what type of change will be made to the water rights, Sandison said. After the program becomes more established, they may be able to go from a year-by-year approval to a two-year approval.

Ultimately, Sandison said he thinks legislation will be needed for the program. It already has a home in the state’s water laws, but legislation would help.

This is a way to add irrigated acres without issuing new water rights, Olsen said.

“We can use our existing water rights better,” he said.

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