WENATCHEE, Wash. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved permits for all but one irrigator allowing pipe extensions to get water from two Columbia River reservoirs that were lowered because of a crack in Wanapum Dam.
However, the one permit still on hold is the largest, impacting about 50 growers and about 3,000 acres on Stemilt Hill and Wenatchee Heights, just south of Wenatchee.
Hopefully, the permit will be granted this week so installation of pipes from the river into a pond serving the irrigation system can get started April 28, said Kevin Juchmes, water manager of Stemilt Irrigation District.
“It’s up to the federal government to decide if my trees live or die,” said Kyle Mathison, owner of Kyle Mathison Orchards and a co-owner and vice president of Stemilt Growers Inc. Kyle Mathison Orchards owns a substantial amount of the 3,000 acres.
KMO Holding owns the property on which there is an easement for Stemilt Irrigation District to operate the pond that collects flow through rocks from the river just north of the mouth of Stemilt Creek. Water is pumped from the pond 2,000 to 3,000 feet uphill to the orchards. Stemilt, Lower Stemilt and Wenatchee Heights irrigation districts are served by the pond system. Wenatchee Heights Irrigation District should have enough runoff in streams from snow melt that it won’t need the Columbia River water this year, Mathison said. He is a board member of the Lower Stemilt district, which serves his orchards.
The permit for KMO Holding and Stemilt Irrigation District is taking more review because the work has “higher potential for disturbing or destroying an archaeological site,” said Patricia Graesser, a Corps spokeswoman in Seattle.
The site is on the other side of the creek about 300 yards away from the pond, Juchmes said. It’s where bones were found several years ago, he said.
Ryan Walker, biologist and a principal partner in Grette Associates, environmental consultants working for Mathison, said another issue has been the type of fish screens used on two, 36-inch-diameter pipes that would meet National Marine Fisheries Service approval. He said Bud Hover, director of the state Department of Agriculture, has been a huge help with NMFS.
“Without his help, I’d really be worried about the timing of this project,” Walker said.
On April 16, the Corps began approving permits for other irrigators. Two days earlier, Hover said a $31.4 million tree fruit crop loss was looming if orchards didn’t get water soon. Walker said about $25 million of that is Stemilt Hill and Wenatchee Heights.
The state Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife approved permits for orchards to extend irrigation system intakes to get water from the Columbia but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped the process at the request of Indian tribes after extension of an irrigation pipe disturbed or came close to an archaeological site, Hover said.
Graesser said an applicant dug a trench within boundaries of an archaeological site in the Wanapum reservoir. The Stemilt project is in the Rock Island reservoir. Graesser said there may have been no disturbance.
“I would call it a hiccup. It made everyone uncomfortable,” she said.
On April 17, Hover said the Corps had approved permits and had done a good job of moving forward.
Allyson Brooks, state Historic Preservation Officer at the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, said the Corps resolved issues by having archaeologists monitor pipe projects to make sure no archaeological sites are disturbed. The archaeologists have the authority to halt work, she said.
Mark Zirkle, president of Zirkle-Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, said the Corps issued permits the company needed for its 900-acre CRO Orchard southeast of Rock Island. CRO has had sufficient water for nutrient and pest sprays using well water and water from one of its concrete tower river pumps that were close enough to be extended into the river, Zirkle said.
Jay Brunner, director of the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, said the Corps approved a permit for the WSU Sunrise Research Orchard on April 16. Work on a permanent extension began the next day and was finished April 19. Water was to begin flowing April 21 to the 50-acre orchard and 60-acre orchard WSU leases to Piepel Premium Fruit Co., Brunner said.
Early sprays were missed at Sunrise Orchard and new plantings on sandy soil were approaching critical need of water, he said.
Lacey Ledbetter, owner of an 18-acre cherry orchard across the river from CRO, said he got his permit April 18 but that it may take a couple of weeks to get a contractor who isn’t too busy to move and extend his pipe.
Juchmes said Stemilt Hill and Wenatchee Heights orchards have been getting by with 300 gallons of water per minute from creeks but need the 2,700-gallon-per-minute flow from the pond by May 1. Walker said summer usage is 10,000 gallons per minute and 16,000 if Wenatchee Heights is added.
The Rock Island reservoir water level had been at 609 feet above sea level, but has risen to 610 and 611 in the last week or so because of greater flow from spring runoff. Juchmes said pipes from the river into the pond may not be needed if the level stays up. But Chelan County Public Utility District cannot guarantee those levels because flows will slow from the 120,000 to 130,000 cubic feet per second to 45,000 in the summer, said Suzanne Hartman, PUD spokeswoman.
Mathison said the pipes are needed because water is most critical for trees in July and August.
The PUD gives twice daily updates on the river flow and Rock Island reservoir water level at 509-661-8000, ext. 6 and real-time readings online at www.chelanpud.org.