YAKIMA, Wash. — Coming off a summer of moderate drought with some crop losses, the five Cascade Mountain reservoirs serving irrigators in the Yakima Basin have less water than normal and the winter snowpack outlook is uncertain.
“We are in an El Nino neutral which would mean normal conditions and we would be fairly optimistic. No one has been calling for a dry or mild winter so we have no cause to think it will be,” said Chris Lynch, hydrologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Yakima.
However, he added, a warm water body off the Gulf of Alaska, reminiscent of one there prior to the drought of 2015, could result in more moderate temperatures and less snow.
The U.S. Climate Prediction Center says odds are better for temperatures slightly above normal than normal or below normal through winter while precipitation is at an equal chance of being above or below normal, Lynch said.
Keechelus, Kachess, Cle Elum, Rimrock and Bumping reservoirs, with a total capacity of 1,065,400 acre-feet of water, reached a low of 138,000 acre-feet on Oct. 15, which was 47% below normal for that time of year. It compared with 238,000 acre-feet a year earlier, a 30-year average of 261,000 acre-feet and a record low of 51,680 in 1973.
“The 138,000 is a drought year type of low. Anything below 155,000 is kind of a drought year. In 2015, we were at 107,000 and we were on a trajectory to end lower than that this year but rain in September and October bailed us out,” Lynch said.
The reservoirs were at 207,000 acre-feet on Nov. 18, which was 40% below normal.
The reservoirs provide irrigation water for 464,000 acres of mostly farmland along 175 miles of the 214-mile-long Yakima River in the Kittitas and Yakima valleys.
The valleys hold some of the state’s richest farmland abundant in tree fruit, hay, wine grapes, hops and many other crops, cattle and dairies. It’s also the region most vulnerable to drought, the last being in 2015.
That year crop losses reached into the millions of dollars. This year, it apparently is far less.
The Roza Irrigation District is on junior water rights that dropped to 67% of full entitlement on July 3 and rebounded to 72% in September. It reduced deliveries to 3.3 gallons per minute per acre in June, enabling it to return to more than 5 gallons per minute per acre in August.
That along with rain allowed the district to provide water to Oct. 15 which was still about a week short of normal.
There were some minor crop losses and fruit quality lessened, but nothing widespread, said Scott Revell, district manager in Sunnyside.
Blueberries, Honeycrisp apples and hops were prioritized, he said.
The other major district on junior water rights, Kittitas Reclamation District, held at 4 acre-feet per acre of water delivery, down from 5, through the season and ran out of water Sept. 24, shy of its normal Oct. 15.
On Oct. 3, USBR announced a recalculation giving KRD 100% entitlement from Oct. 1 through Oct. 15, said Urban Eberhart, KRD manager in Ellensburg.
“We reversed direction and put water back in our system and made significant deliveries for hay and tree fruit. Unfortunately, significant amounts of hay acreage were not reseeded because they didn’t know early enough that they would additional water,” Eberhart said.
“There was frustration. We will continue to communicate with the bureau when supply is close, but it was hard to avoid given timing of rain.”
He said he’s trying to get an estimate on other hay production loss due to restricted water and that the district continues with $3 million in canal lining to improve efficiency.
“It was a tight year. A tough year,” Eberhart said. “This was right at 70% supply which is what we’re preparing for to be the new average. It’s still tough because not all the mitigation of additional storage and lining of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Plan is in place.”