The looming Yakima Basin drought is expected to get worse after little snow fell in March.
State and federal officials now believe some Yakima Basin water users will receive even less than the 73 percent of their normal water that was predicted previously.
Jeff Marti, the state Department of Ecology’s drought coordinator, told a joint House and Senate drought committee Wednesday that it’s likely the federal Bureau of Reclamation will lower the amount of water that users such as the Kennewick and Roza irrigation districts will receive. The joint committee met for the first time Wednesday.
The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to issue its next water supply estimate April 6.
Some snow fell on Snoqualmie Pass on Tuesday night, but it was spotty in only the high elevations, and was too little to improve the situation, said Scott Pattee, U.S. Department of Agriculture water supply specialist.
Statewide, snowpack is at 22 percent of average, he said. The upper Yakima Basin is at 5 percent of average snowpack, while the lower Yakima Basin is at 28 percent.
What snow there is continues to melt earlier than normal, Pattee said.
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. The reservoirs for the Yakima Basin are full, but the basin depends on snow to recharge those reservoirs, and that snowpack isn’t there.
The drought situation this year is different than what the state experienced in recent years, Marti said. That’s because while there was normal precipitation statewide, the unusually warm temperatures meant that water fell as rain instead of snow and already has flowed to the ocean.
At the moment, the anticipated water supply in the Yakima Basin is not dire enough to trigger a large state response, Marti said. But that could change if the anticipated water supply dwindles.
Ecology has asked the state Legislature for $9 million in drought response money for the state.
Of that, $4 million would be for the Yakima Basin for issues such as helping to pay for temporary water transfers from those with senior water rights to junior water right users.
Another $1 million would allow the state to lease Yakima Basin water rights to preserve river flows.
Yakima Basin major water users can handle the pain if the water supply remains above 70 percent, Marti said.
Ecology will not approve emergency wells in the Yakima Basin at this time, Marti said. That could change if the situation deteriorates.
But even if it gets worse, the state would have to find water to offset well water use before those wells could be approved and begin pumping water, Marti said. Yakima Basin surface and ground water have to be managed together.
“It is going to be more challenging to find the water to mitigate that use,” he said.
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.
KID employees on Wednesday began filling the canal system with Yakima River water. It will take a few weeks for all customers to have access to the water, but many should have water later this week.
The irrigation district is delaying fully filling the Division 4 canal until April 15 to give employees time to finish ongoing construction projects, said Jason McShane, the irrigation district’s engineering and operations manager.
But officials plan to phase in filling that canal so some farmers and residential neighborhoods will have access to water sooner.
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.
KID is among the last to be able to start pulling water from the Yakima River based on water rights. Columbia, Roza, Benton and Sunnyside Valley irrigation districts started filling canal systems in March.
Roza’s water rights can be limited. Benton and Sunnyside Valley have some water the government can’t limit, but they also have some water that can be cut back in a drought year.
Ecology officials have met with Yakima Basin irrigation districts, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Yakama Nation to begin determining the best strategy for the expected drought.
The department is reaching out to Yakima River irrigators to try to find some with senior water rights who are willing to let their land go fallow this year and lease their water to the state to maintain flows in the tributaries, Marti said.
Officials want to lease water to keep streams from going dry in the upper Yakima Basin, specifically above where the Yakima, Naches, and Tieton rivers meet at the city of Yakima. Farmers who are willing to not harvest an annual crop this year can be paid by the state to leave water in the river.
“With snowpack levels dangerously low, the upper tributary streams are at greatest risk of going dry,” said Sage Park, water resources manager in Ecology’s Central Regional Office in Yakima. “These creeks feed the main-stem river that delivers water downstream to other senior water users.”
Farmers interested in finding out more can go to a workshop 4 p.m. April 7 at the Department of Ecology’s Central Regional Office, at 15 W. Yakima Ave., in Yakima.