Kennewick and Roza irrigation district customers should expect limits to how much Yakima River water they can use unless a wet spring quenches an anticipated Yakima Basin drought.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that some Yakima Basin irrigation districts may receive about 73 percent of their normal water thanks to this winter’s abysmal snowpack.
Yakima River water users rely on melting snow to fill the river during the summer so that water demands can be met for Mid-Columbia towns, crops, fish and lawns.
The Yakima Basin can’t store enough water in reservoirs to meet the full need, making snowpack critical.
Irrigation districts, such as the Columbia Irrigation District, with senior water rights issued before 1905 will get their full water amount because those rights can’t be limited by the state and federal governments.
Kennewick Irrigation District’s water rights are senior but “proratable,” meaning it will be reduced based on availability, so the water it receives will be limited. And that means KID’s residential customers might be asked to cut back on watering their lawns.
Roza Irrigation District allotments also will be restricted.
Two-thirds of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District’s water rights are “senior,” or guaranteed, which cushions the impact on its customers during a drought. But the rest of the district’s water rights can be limited in a drought year.
Irrigators who use Columbia River water don't have the same concerns for this year. The snowpack in Canada has been good and the river should be at near-normal flows.
Recovery is possible
The federal Bureau of Reclamation and irrigation district officials remained optimistic Monday, because the outlook is better than at the start of the 2005 drought and previous wet springs have rescued Yakima Basin water users.
Farmers and irrigation district officials had hoped to see more late snow arrive like the storms in the Cascades in February and March 2014.
Last year started out looking like a drought but ended up with enough water for irrigators, fish and communities.
On Monday, Chris Lynch, a Bureau of Reclamation civil engineer, said the Yakima Basin’s precipitation to-date is better than the previous drought years of 2001 and 2005.
And the amount of water stored in the snow is better this year than the 2005 record lows, but not much better.
The Yakima Basin has received close to normal precipitation since October, Lynch said.
But much of that was in the form of rain in the Cascades, filling the Yakima Basin’s five reservoirs but not adding to the snowpack. Reservoirs are 95 percent full.
The upper Yakima Basin has about 22 percent of its average snowpack, while the lower Yakima Basin is at 35 percent, he said.
As of March 1, the reservoirs were holding nearly 1 million acre-feet of water. That’s more than the nearly 700,000 acre-feet the reservoirs held at the same time in 2005.
Lynch said he hopes to see more rainfall this spring, pushing the storage level to record levels.
“We are supposed to see some rain this week, thank goodness,” said Quentin Kreuter, the bureau’s Yakima-based river operator.
The above -average warm temperatures and drier conditions are expected to return next week, he said.
Predicting weather more than 10 days out is tricky.
Experts are forecasting either near-average or above-average temperatures this spring, Lynch said. The desired rain is possible, but it’s also possible that the Yakima Basin will end up with below-average precipitation.
A wet spring has rescued Yakima Basin irrigators before.
In March 2010, bureau officials expected that irrigation districts with proratable water rights would receive just 77 percent of their water, but by June there was enough rain and snow to avoid restrictions, said Scott Revell, Roza Irrigation District manager.
plan for less water
Kennewick Irrigation District officials plan to start work this week with landscaping companies and water masters on conserving water.
Chuck Freeman, Kennewick Irrigation District manager, said they are suggesting that homeowners this year water lawns no more than three times a week, for 30 minutes at a time.
Kennewick Irrigation District officials expect operational costs this year will be higher because of the increased staff time needed to operate the canals and help support customers.
The irrigation district’s board previously established a $1 million drought relief fund. About $500,000 is being used this year to install automated gates, which allow the flow of water to be controlled remotely.
Jason McShane, Kennewick Irrigation District engineering and operations manager, said they will try to efficiently manage the water to minimize the impact on customers.
“We are going to have full water deliveries as long as possible,” he said.
Return flows may help ease the pain for Kennewick Irrigation District customers, McShane said. In the past, those flows have allowed the irrigation district to receive more water during drought years than other irrigation districts that also can have their use limited.
KID can’t start filling the canals until April 1. Roza Irrigation District will start pulling Yakima River water March 16, but it won’t be ready for customers to use until later.
Revell said they are still several weeks away from needing to decide whether to pursue a mid-season shutdown for the Roza district. Water was shut off for a couple weeks during the 1994, 2001 and 2005 droughts.
Roza also might be able to lease water from irrigation districts that have nonproratable water rights.
may lessen drought pains
Ongoing conservation efforts are expected to help irrigation districts better survive a possible drought.
Roza Irrigation District has been piping its lateral canals since 1983. The pipe prevents seepage and conserves water by reducing the operational spill at the end of canals.
Finishing the remaining miles of piping in the next 15 years will conserve about 10,000 acre feet in a full water supply year, Revell said.
Since the 2005 drought, KID’s capital improvement program has spent more than $10 million to improve canals and increase water efficiency. That has been paid for with grants, reserves and customer assessments.
Kennewick Irrigation District employees are working now to finish lining nine miles of canals before the water season begins. Liners help prevent water seepage and canal breaks.
By the time water is turned on this year, the irrigation district will have lined more than 24 miles of earthen canals. About 40 miles will remain.
This possible drought is exactly what officials are trying to prepare for through the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, said Urban Eberhart, a Kittitas Reclamation District director. Similar conditions may become the new normal in 25 or more years.
A major focus of the planning is to add to storage capabilities so the basin doesn’t rely so much on snowpack to store water, Eberhart said.
This summer, work could begin to raise Lake Cle Elum by three feet to allow another 14,600 acre feet of water to be stored, he said. Other projects also are proposed.