UNION GAP, Wash. — Irrigation water to orchards and hay fields in two Yakima River tributaries has been cut off by the state Department of Ecology because of low flow caused by drought.
Flows in Cowiche Creek, west of Yakima, and the Teanaway River, near Cle Elum, are so dire that 129 irrigators, with some of earliest pre-statehood water rights, must stop watering orchards, hay and alfalfa crops on some 2,153 acres, DOE announced.
“These are tributaries that have no reservoirs. They are strictly fed by snowpack or aquifer recharge,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder, a DOE spokeswoman in Union Gap.
Insufficient winter snow, record-breaking heat in June and no measurable precipitation for 90 days as brought the Cowiche and Teanaway to historic lows for this time of year, Redfield-Wilder said.
The Teanaway near Cle Elum was at 5.6 cubic feet per second on July 22 compared with the prior low of 6.8 cubic feet per second for that date. The Cowiche was at 1.9 cubic feet per second and had been under 1 cubic feet per second earlier in the month, DOE said.
“It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before,” said Stan Isley, Ecology’s court-appointed stream patroller in the Teanaway River Basin.
For the first time this year, a stream patroller has been appointed on Cowiche Creek where traditionally water users have policed themselves. A neighbor with a senior right would call upstream neighbors with junior rights, asking them to stop using water.
Similar curtailments occurred in the mid-1980s, but later in the year and in an era when water works were far less efficient and more water was diverted than now, Isley said.
“Even with modern efficiencies, there’s not enough water to meet these senior water right holders or support the streams for fish,” he said.
Curtailed water rights date back to 1873 and without major rain the rest of the water rights on the Teanaway and Cowiche, dating to 1869, may be shut off soon, Redfield-Wilder said. That’s probably unprecedented for this time of year, she said.
Orchards losing water this time of year likely would lose their crops. The Cowiche area is heavy in Red Delicious that isn’t harvested until October.
C. James Lust, a Yakima attorney with cattle and hay fields in the Cowiche area, said the family put its water rights into a trust two years ago in exchange from getting its water from the Yakima Tieton Irrigation District. That’s worked out well so far, he said. A cutback would mean lighter or no cutting on his third-cutting, he said.