Prepare now for water shortage later

Marianne C. Ophardt, WSU Benton County ExtensionJanuary 23, 2014 

I feel a little like Chicken Little, but local gardeners and homeowners should be afraid. This winter has been dry, and long-range forecasts are not predicting any relief in sight. Optimistic climatologists, however, say things could change.

Snowpack in the Olympics is at 26 percent of normal, and the Cascade watersheds are at or below 50 percent of normal. This situation has been created by a winter drought in all of Washington, with precipitation for the first three months of winter at only 55 percent to 65 percent of normal. The United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service predicts that our stream flows in spring and summer will be at 60 percent to 80 percent of normal.

What that means is that irrigation water likely is to be in short supply during the coming growing season. Now is the time to start planning on how to cope.

1. Local soils are dry since we also have less winter precipitation than is normal in our area. (Gray, foggy weather doesn't add moisture to the soil.) Get ahead of the game, and deep water trees, shrubs and perennial plants now. Before watering, use a shovel to check for a frost layer in the soil that would prevent water from penetrating into the root zone. If a frost layer persists, wait until it disappears to water.

2. Most vegetable crops need at least one inch of water per week during the growing season. As you are planning your vegetable garden, think about what crops you want to plant. To conserve water, avoid wasting space by planting vegetables that take up lots of space, such as sweet corn, vining watermelon, vining winter squash and peas. Look for bush and compact varieties of squash, cucumbers, melons and even tomatoes that will take up less area. If you plant in rows in your garden, move the rows closer together.

3. Keep weeds in check with frequent light cultivation. Weeds compete with vegetables and flowering plants for water and nutrients. Regular, shallow cultivation with a stirrup, scuffle or "Hula hoe" will keep weeds from stealing limited irrigation water.

4. If your vegetable, perennials, trees and shrubs are being watered with sprinkler irrigation, consider putting in some type of water conserving irrigation system, such as drip tape, soaker hoses, porous wall hoses or a drip system.

What do you need for drip irrigation? Consult the Washington State University Extension fact sheet "Drip Irrigation for the Yard and Garden" at https://pubs.wsu.edu/.

The author, Dr. Troy Peters, will be just one of the WSU faculty addressing in the Master Gardener during their training program this year. He will discuss "How You Know When to Water." The 15 session Master Gardener training program starts Tuesday. If you are interested in applying or learning more about the program, call 735-3551 by Monday.

-- Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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