Red Mountain wine grape growers will receive Yakima River water for the first time next month using Kennewick Irrigation District’s new $19.2 million system.
KID officials expect to be able to provide those growers with their full distribution of water in spite of a declared drought in the the Yakima Basin.
It’s an exciting time for Red Mountain, as the grape-growing region has received national and international acclaim, and grape growers are adding acres in response to demand and the new Yakima River water.
Gov. Jay Inslee recently declared a drought emergency for the Yakima Basin. While reservoirs are full, the snowpack in the Cascades that feeds the Yakima River already is limited and getting worse because of the early melt.
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Kennewick Irrigation District has senior water rights, but they can be limited in a drought year. Some Yakima Basin irrigation districts, including KID, may receive only about 73 percent of their normal water allocation, the federal Bureau of Reclamation estimated earlier this month.
Red Mountain customers should receive their full supply because they already receive less water than other Kennewick Irrigation District customers, at 1.5 acre-feet of water per acre instead of 3.5 acre-feet, said Jason McShane, KID’s engineering and operations manager.
Yakima River water for Red Mountain is pulled out of the river downstream from KID’s main point of diversion at the Prosser Dam.
The irrigation district can’t use Red Mountain water for customers it serves from the Prosser Dam. A certain water flow is federally required to go over the dam. What the irrigation district uses comes out of flows above that minimum, McShane said.
Red Mountain, between West Richland and Benton City, is Washington’s smallest grape-growing area. The plantings on the south side will only reach about 2,800 acres, locals say.
Some property owners planted grapevines last year in anticipation of the new water, while others are preparing to plant this year. The KID project will provide water for up to 1,785 acres. About 400 acres include vineyards already being irrigated with groundwater.
Red Mountain could see around 700 acres of grapevines planted this year. Those new plants already have been ordered, committing property owners to planting.
Property owners also start paying KID for water delivery this year and also are paying the cost of the construction project for the new system, including the river intake, piping and reservoirs.
Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards, the largest landowner in the growing area, is set to plant its vineyards next month. British Columbia’s powerful Aquilini family bought 670 acres from KID in an auction last year. They plan to create top-tier wines and sell grapes.
Dick Boushey, a Grandview grower who also manages some Red Mountain vineyards, said vineyards can get by on 1.5 acre-feet of water per acre a year, but there will be problems if the water supply is cut to less than that.
There wasn’t much moisture during the winter, and some moisture is needed in the soil to help with a healthy bloom, Boushey said. Water is most needed for grapevines in April, May, August and September.
There is some concern because young grapevines need a steady supply of water. Boushey said the roots only reach into the first foot or so of soil, requiring small, frequent amounts of water.
Growers can decrease crop loads on mature grapevines to match water availability, but don’t have the same options for new vines, he said.
The new Red Mountain system will be turned on April 1, which is the earliest KID is allowed to start pulling water from the Yakima River.
KID officials plan to start the year by finishing a full system test. That test couldn’t be finished last year because the delivery of some pumps was delayed. Officials were able to test the system between the two reservoirs, but still need to run tests between the intake station on the Yakima River and the first reservoir, McShane said.
KID will need growers willing to use the water during the testing. McShane said the irrigation district has not had any shortage of volunteers.