Okanogan orchard

Limbs cut for fire blight are piled in an Okanogan, Wash., orchard last year. The Okanogan River is at record lows this year.

OROVILLE, Wash. — The Okanogan River is at historic lows, but the Oroville-Tonasket Irrigation District has obtained rights to 5,600 acre-feet of water that is available to lease.

The district, headquartered in Oroville, serves a little more than 10,000 acres of tree fruit, hay and vineyards from the Canadian border  25 miles south to Tonasket.

The Okanogan River at Tonasket was running at 2,042 cubic feet per second on June 18, compared with a 90-year average of 9,410 cfs for this time of year, says Jay O’Brien, district manager.

“The prior record low for this date was 2,460 cfs in 1940,” he said. “Right now everyone is doing OK but river flows are declining very quickly.”

The district received state Department of Ecology permission June 17 to move forward with water banking, he said.

That means the district can lease rights to about 5,600 acre-feet of water to any of 100 junior water right users on the Okanogan and Similkameen rivers who could get shut off from water.

“It’s enough to cover 2,800 acres with 2 feet of water, which is probably what an orchard needs from mid-July to mid-September,” O’Brien said. “It’s first-come, first-serve. Yes, a few orchards could eat it all up.”

It’s available to anyone in the district or south of the district along the Okanogan and Columbia rivers, he said.

“I think things will get bad. The water world will get tight. If junior right holders are shut off, I can’t see how they wouldn’t suffer crop damage,” O’Brien said.

With DOE help, the district obtained permission from the International Joint Commission (Canada and U.S.) for an extra foot of storage on Osoyoos Lake, which straddles the border.

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