WENATCHEE, Wash. — A $31.4 million tree fruit crop loss is looming if orchards south of Wenatchee don’t get water soon, says Bud Hover, director of the Washington Department of Agriculture.
The orchards are without water because of drawdowns in two reservoirs of the Columbia River due to a crack in Wanapum Dam, discovered Feb. 27.
The state Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife approved permits for orchards to extend irrigation systems and get water but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut everything down, Hover said.
The Corps did so at the request of Indian tribes after extension of an irrigation pipe disturbed or came close to disturbing an archaeological site, Hover said.
“It was kind of a blow to the whole state effort,” he said. “DOE has permitting on the water. Fish and Wildlife has hydraulic permits. They were working together and then the Corps came in and dropped a bomb on them.”
Fifteen irrigators on the Wanapum and Rock Island reservoirs of the river face losing $31.4 million in apple, cherry, pear and apricot crops this season if they don’t get water soon and losses will be higher if trees die, Hover said.
State legislators are talking to federal legislators to try to resolve the situation, he said.
“There is no time anymore. This has to move within the next two weeks. People are already really hurting and screaming for water,” he said. “I am doing everything I can, but I’m not the permitting agency.”
The Yakama and Colville tribes agree with the process but the Wanapums are more “reticent,” Hover said.
Patricia Graesser, an Army Corps spokeswoman in Seattle, said an incident at the Wanapum reservoir triggered tribal concern but would not answer questions about that. She said the Corps is required by law to review work in the riverbed, is aware of irrigators’ need and is expediting its permit process. The agency anticipates processing most, if not all, permits this week, she said.
Allyson Brooks, state historic preservation officer at the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, said projects that don’t disturb riverbed soil will be easier to approve. Part of the problem, she said, has been confusion among agencies about permits. She said most of the irrigation access is in or adjacent to cultural resource areas.
Orchards affected by the Army Corps shutdown include thousands of acres on Stemilt Hill and Wenatchee Heights served by three irrigation districts that use a pond to drain water from the river and pipe it uphill. Those orchards can get by with some 300 gallons of water per minute from creeks for another two weeks but then need the 2,700-gallon-per minute flow from the pond for their trees, said Kevin Juchmes, water manager of Stemilt Irrigation District. Trenches need to be dug to put pipes in to feed the pond, he said. The work will cost about $80,000, he said.
“Until the permits go through, we’re between a rock and a hard place,” Juchmes said.
The 50-acre Washington State University Sunrise Research Orchard and adjoining 60-acre Pieple Premium Fruit orchard are affected but hopefully will be approved soon since a $74,000 extension can be done without digging, said Jay Brunner, director of the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. The Army Corps stopped projects from going forward about April 9 or 10, he said.
“We don’t have any water so we’re missing a lot of our early sprays and within a week or so our new plantings on sandy soil will be critical,” Brunner said.
Sunrise Orchard is where WSU’s new WA 38 apple variety is grown and Hover said he’s very concerned about that.
Mark Zirkle, president of Zirkle Fruit Co., Selah, which owns the 900-acre CRO Orchard, declined comment. He previously has said CRO is working to get water.
Lacey Ledbetter, an 18-acre cherry grower across the river from CRO, said he sees no sprinklers running in CRO Orchard. “That’s very unusual for this time of year. From what I understand everyone is in a bad way. It’s just the lucky few who got their pipes in before the Army Corps shut it down,” he said.
Ledbetter needs to move his pipe to get water, which requires excavation. Until then he’s getting water from a neighbor’s system but it’s not enough. He’s missed a nutrient spray, his trees are in full bloom and he needs to apply pesticides at pedal fall. He’s worried about inferior fruit and weakened trees attacked by shot hole bore and other pests.
“This is not right,” he said. “It’s something we didn’t ask for. I can’t understand why it’s dragging out so long.”
Bill Nelson, owner of Nelson’s Country Market and 80 acres of orchard just south of the WSU Sunrise Orchard, said he extended his pipe with approval from Grant County PUD before the shutdown. But the river level fluctuates leaving the extension out of water sometimes, he said. He used old spare pump to help push water over a mile and up 300 feet or more in elevation to his trees.