An impending Yakima Basin drought will be worse than originally expected unless farmers, homeowners and fish are rescued by a cool, wet spring.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that some Yakima River water users will receive about 60 percent of their normal water this year.
State, federal and local officials anticipated the drop after March failed to bring any more Cascade Mountain snow and some of the existing snow melted. Earlier, water users such as the Kennewick and Roza irrigation districts expected to receive about 73 percent of their normal water.
The five reservoirs serving the Yakima Basin are full, but can’t store enough water to meet all needs, including the demands of irrigators, municipalities and fish. The basin depends on snow to recharge those reservoirs.
Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency for the Yakima Basin, Walla Walla, Wenatchee and the Olympic Peninsula. Officials are calling it a snowpack drought.
Exactly how much Yakima River water users like the Kennewick and Roza irrigation districts will receive won’t be determined until the Bureau of Reclamation starts using stored reservoir water to supplement the Yakima River’s natural flows.
Typically, the Bureau of Reclamation doesn’t start using that water until the third or fourth week of June, said Scott Revell, Roza Irrigation District manager. In previous drought years, stored reservoir water has been used as early as April.
“We hope conditions work together to keep the reservoirs full well into May,” said Chuck Garner, Yakima Project River Operations supervisor.
Irrigation districts like 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 or federal government.
Irrigation districts with proratable water rights can see their water reduced. Kennewick Irrigation District’s water rights are senior but proratable, meaning its water will be reduced based on availability. Roza Irrigation District’s water rights can be limited. Benton and Sunnyside Valley irrigation districts have some water the government can’t limit, but they also have some water that can be cut back in a drought year.
Irrigation districts like Roza and Kennewick are expected to get 60 percent of their normal water allotment if the reservoirs get 100 percent of normal precipitation. Right now, that precipitation is about 93 percent.
It’s a critical time in the water year, Revell said. The temperatures and precipitation seen in the next month will affect how much water some Yakima Basin users can expect later in the year.
Cooler weather could help minimize demand and maintain the existing snowpack, Revell said. Right now, the needs of irrigation districts and other basin water users are being met with natural water flow.
The amount of water stored as snowpack for the Yakima Basin was about 12 percent of the average as of April 1, according to federal officials. Unusually warm temperatures meant that much of the precipitation fell as rain instead of snow.
“We certainly want to be ready in case it gets worse, not better,” Revell said.
Federal officials were moderately optimistic Monday that conditions could improve instead of deteriorate.
“We see some positive weather forecasts that show snowpack building a bit,” Garner said. “If they are correct, then the small existing snowpack along with this new snow will be reserved for later runoff.”
But overall climate predictions call for above average temperatures and below average precipitation.
Roza Irrigation District officials likely will wait to make any decision on trying to lease water or other drought-related actions until after the May estimate is released, Revell said. In previous droughts, the district has done mid-season shut downs.
Kennewick Irrigation District tends to fare better than some of the other irrigation districts during a drought because it benefits from return flows, said Seth Defoe, KID’s planning manager. But they still anticipate getting less than their full allotment of water.
KID officials have been reaching out to homeowners associations to educate them on how to best prepare for less water. Defoe said they also have met with nursery owners and landscaping companies.
The cities of Kennewick and Richland do not have the capacity for residents who use KID water on their lawns and gardens to switch to city water. Residents and businesses who use city water can continue to do so. The cities use Columbia River water, and state and federal officials expect plenty this year because the river is fed by Canadian snowpack.
How Yakima Basin farmers will fare depends on each farm. Some growers also have groundwater rights and so can use that groundwater to supplement the river water available to them this year. Some crops, such as wine grapes, need less water and fare better than others during droughts.
While many farmers scraped through the 2001 and 2005 droughts, some farms did fail, Revell said.
“There is definitely some economic pain that is going to happen,” he said.
But cutting back on water use now doesn’t mean that water will be saved for later. Kennewick Irrigation District doesn’t have that kind of storage within its system.
Still, water users should be as efficient as possible and not waste water. “It is a precious, finite resource,” Defoe said.
Roza Irrigation District customers should check the district’s website at www.roza.org for more information and updates.