Kennewick Irrigation District declares war on ground squirrels

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJuly 1, 2014 

Burrowing rodents are the likely culprit of a recent Kennewick Irrigation District canal break in Finley that's expected to cost at least $168,000.

And the critters probably will strike again.

So KID officials have declared war on California ground squirrels and hired a company to kill them around their canals.

The squirrels build communal tunnel systems that weaken the walls of earthen canals. Last week's breach left 4,500 residential and agricultural customers without water for about five days.

KID hired Pointe Pest Control to poison the animals at an initial cost of about $14,600.

About 10 miles of KID's canals from Olympia Street to Meals Road in Finley will be treated first, Chuck Freeman, KID manager, told KID's board Tuesday.

The rest of the canal system is being inspected and more areas may need to be treated, said Jason McShane, KID engineering and operations manager.

Seth Defoe, the agency's planning manager, said the burrows in the canal bank and access road at the canal near East Game Farm Road and South Oak Street were unlike anything he has seen here, but were similar to burrows he has seen in Oregon.

"It could be a challenge for us moving forward," Defoe said.

The non-native California ground squirrels are about a foot-and-a-half long and look similar to their bushy tailed, tree-loving relatives the Western gray squirrels, which wreak havoc with electrical power lines instead.

McShane said a property owner near the Finley canal breach had been battling the rodents for years and had finally gotten them out of an orchard they were damaging.

The squirrels are not something McShane had seen in his nine years with KID.

One of the challenges is that when they burrow, the rodents take the dirt away. There isn't a mound like with gopher holes, making them hard to spot, McShane said.

KID's directors praised staff members for their response to the break about 8:50 p.m. June 21.

KID employees sandbagged a home that was at risk of flooding and pumped water away from the house.

Ray Poland & Sons had a crew out to start repairs by the afternoon of June 22, and rotated crews to keep working for 24 hours until the canal was fixed, McShane said.

KID's board approved a declaration of emergency for the break, allowing the district to waive the normal competitive bidding procedures required by state law and get repairs started sooner.

Board Vice President Gene Huffman said he appreciated the assistance of Petermann Trustees for allowing KID to use dirt from its property to repair the canal.

That sped up the repair by up to 24 hours, said McShane.

He said damage was minimal, limited to less than 1.5 acres of hay and the shoulders of a county road. The foundation of one home also might have be damaged.

Most properties had water back Thursday and Friday. Anyone who still does not have water is being affected by a different, unrelated outage, he said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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