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Roza district growers get water a little longer

One of the largest irrigation districts in Washington's Yakima Valley is pushing water delivery into October. Apples, pears, cherries, wine and juice grapes and field corn have all been impacted by drought.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on September 15, 2015 9:51AM

Last changed on September 15, 2015 10:00AM

Jim Willard thins wine grapes near Sunnyside, Wash., in May. He says wine and juice grape tonnage and apple yields will be down in Yakima Valley due to drought.

Dan Wheat/Capital Press

Jim Willard thins wine grapes near Sunnyside, Wash., in May. He says wine and juice grape tonnage and apple yields will be down in Yakima Valley due to drought.

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SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — The Roza Irrigation District, serving 72,000 acres of farmland in the Yakima Valley, is providing more water a little longer than it thought it would.

The district, one of the hardest hit by statewide drought, will maintain deliveries of 3 gallons of water per minute per acre until Sept. 21. It had planned to cut back to 1.8 gallons per minute on Sept. 13. The district believes it will provide water to Oct. 5 and a few days later in the lower end of the district. It had been hoping to make the end of September and normal goes to Oct. 20.

“The (U.S.) Bureau of Reclamation was taking a conservative approach in calculating water supply and as we get down to the last month we’re getting more accurate measurements which is giving us a little more water to work with,” said Jim Willard, a Roza board member and Prosser grower.

Also helping was a little more rain in the Cascade mountains trickling into reservoirs, he said.

“It’s better to have a few more gallons and days than to come up short from a farm management standpoint,” he said.

Normally, the district provides 7.1 gallons per minute throughout the season. This year, because of drought, it reduced flows early on and then cut off all deliveries from May 11 to June 1 to save water for later in the season.

It resumed 1.8 gallons per minute from June 1 to June 29, then bumped up to 2.7 gallons per minute and on July 13 to 3 gallons per minute to help crops through hot weather.

The district is evaluating supply and demand and if demand drops off, as it normally does about Sept. 17, deliveries may extend a few days beyond Oct. 5, the district said on its website.

The district has leased some water rights from other districts. Growers activated emergency wells and have compensated for less water by fallowing corn fields, cutting out less profitable apple orchards and keeping acres fallow that had been planned for replanting.

Willard said there was a sizable reduction in field corn in the valley because of the drought. That’s increased costs for dairies having to haul silage from farther away. Cherries and pears were smaller.

The valley’s apple crop is one to two sizes smaller because of drought and heat, he said. He expects the statewide apple crop to be 10 to 20 percent smaller than the 125.2 million, 40-pound boxes estimated in August.

“I just started picking Red Delicious today (Sept. 14). I’m not optimistic about quality or quantity,” he said.

He prefers size 100 to 125 for export, but is looking at 113 to 138s which will be 10 percent less crop.

“Down Hanks Road from my place there’s an orchard not pushed out yet but not watered this year. There’s 80 acres in that block. I know of about 200 acres in my area pushed out (removed) because of drought,” he said.

Willard’s wine and Concord grapes are smaller due to heat and drought. It means less tonnage but better flavor, he said.

Willard mowed grass between his orchard and vineyard rows six times this year instead of three to keep it shorter and save water. He didn’t plant grass betweens rows in a new vineyard planting. Grass is good for plant health.

Growers have invested a lot in updating emergency wells and operating them, he said.

He shares an emergency well with a neighbor and another neighbor is pumping 1,500 gallons of water per minute from an emergency well but it’s costing $1,350 per day in diesel.

“How many days do you want to do that?” Willard asked. “That’s pretty costly. There’s also mitigation costs (water leasing to use wells). The Department of Ecology is sharing in that.”

Willard said it will be November before he can tally his bottom line and that heat and stress has undoubtedly taken a toll on bud development for next year.


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