Fear runs deep as farms dry up

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SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/local/19181_drought18.shtml

Fear runs deep as farms dry up

Yakima Valley is battling salmon and power users for the river water that could save its crops

Wednesday, April 18, 2001


YAKIMA VALLEY -- The aging cabernet vineyard doesn't dominate Jim Willard's worries. Planted in 1980 when the words "red" and "delicious" applied to only one crop in the Yakima Valley, the 14 acres of coarse, thickly corded vines might survive a season with minimal water and maximum luck.

His concern is the younger plants, those as slender and smooth as broomsticks, that this fall finally should pay for themselves with heavy clusters of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay grapes. Like many farmers in the state's eastern agricultural belt, Willard rode the rising tide of Washington wine during the past decade, abandoning potatoes for pinot noir and Granny Smiths for gewürztraminer.

But while the business climate for grapes remains good, the weather has seldom been worse. The record drought of 2001 will force deep cuts in water deliveries to most Washington farmers.

In the Yakima Valley, Willard and the Roza Irrigation District's other 1,800 farmers have been told to expect a maximum of 28 percent of their normal water supplies, an amount so dismal that all but the hardiest crops will die without another source of water.

"I've never seen it this bad," said Willard, whose family has been farming for three generations in Eastern Washington. "People out here are worried about losing everything."

Dick Boushey is looking at sacrificing his last 10 acres of apples, once his only crop, for grapes, which require less water.

"If the water situation turns out to be as bad as is predicted, I'm probably not going to water these trees," he said on Monday, standing on a dirt road in his fields, apples to the north, grapes and cherries to the south. "I haven't made any money off my apples in two years. Now, the money is in grapes."

Said water district manager Ron Van Gundy: "It's going to get pretty ugly for most people."

The problems in the Roza Irrigation District are shared by all Washington farmers and cannot be blamed solely on the drought. The apple market has been so lousy that farmers last year turned 10,000 acres of apple trees into cordwood. Giant hopyards are in vacant repose, waiting for an uptick in beer production, pestilence on hops grown elsewhere, or both.

"Wheat prices are down. Potato prices are down. Apple prices are abysmal. There are farmers out there who are unable to get their annual loans (because of uncertain water supplies)," said Dean Boyer, a spokesman for the Washington Farm Bureau. "It's pretty grim."

The power crisis has made pumping from deep wells devastatingly expensive. At 60 percent of normal, the Cascade's minimal snowpack promises to empty bank accounts along with rivers.

Hoping their voices will carry to Olympia, 100 farmers and supporters gathered at Piers 62 and 63 in Seattle yesterday to protest planned cutbacks in Columbia River water and to advocate limits on the bounty of foreign produce that competes with locally grown crops.

With a backdrop of apple bins, tractors and signs reading "Farmers Were the First Environmentalists" and "Just Say No to Imported Fruit," Britt Dudek, president of the Chelan/Douglas Farm Bureau, said the water the state Department of Ecology plans to cut off won't help salmon in the river -- but it will hurt the farmers.

"It makes no sense that they would do this," said Dudek, who farms 80 acres of apples near Wenatchee. "They can't even measure the water they want to take. But we can."

State officials, disinclined to lose the billions invested in salmon recovery and unwilling to completely overturn self-imposed regulations that require a minimum flow in the Columbia and Snake rivers each month, are trying to offset problems by taking some of the water for fish and wildlife and making it available for crops.

One week ago, after a meeting in Wenatchee with angry, worried farmers, the state Department of Ecology said it will relax its own minimum flow requirements on the Columbia so farmers who use the river for irrigation won't have their supplies cut off entirely. Then, last week, the governor's office announced it had cut a deal with the Bonneville Power Administration buy more water.

Under the deal, the state will purchase water that the BPA bought for power generation from farmers at the upper end of the Columbia River. The state, in turn, will send it downstream for agriculture. Additionally, the BPA will pay between $1 million and $1.5 million to purchase water rights along several Columbia River tributaries and keep the water in the rivers where fish are struggling.

The additional water should cover about half of the irrigators' losses from drought-related cutbacks. Gov. Gary Locke said the agreement recognized farmers' efforts to use water efficiently, and "I hope it will spur them on to even greater savings."

But some farmers aren't convinced, primarily those with the weaker, or junior, water rights. Under a state code adopted in the late 1970s, farmers with Columbia water permits issued after 1980 must stop pumping when the river flow dips below 60 million acre-feet at The Dalles, Ore.

The law gives the river itself a water right senior to that of some farmers. Farmers with senior water rights, many dating back to the land first deeded in the late 1800s, face no such restrictions.

When the March 1 forecast came in at 55.4 million acre-feet -- one of the lowest predictions in a generation -- those 300 farmers with junior rights received letters stating they would lose part or all of their water.

While the state since has reduced the potential cuts and the new BPA deal will return some water to the Columbia, farmers could still be without water for several weeks in the middle of the growing season.

As farmers see it, the cuts don't make sense economically or scientifically. Add all of the junior water rights together and the total daily draw comes to an amount so small -- half of a single percent of the river flow during the drought -- that even state fisheries scientists concede it is nearly impossible to measure. But the cuts to farmers would be critical.

At the Wenatchee meeting, farmers questioned whether the state knew how much water wasn't being used by farmers who had rights but weren't growing crops. (It doesn't.) Others denounced Locke as the "governor of Puget Sound" and not of Eastern Washington. Some vowed to take the water they need and let the state try to stop them.

Tom Fitzsimmons, director of the Department of Ecology, said he recognized the farmers' concerns. Wearing a double-breasted olive suit in a room full of jeans and mesh baseball caps, Fitzsimmons explained: "We are not lowering the flows; Mother Nature is lowering the flows."

The state is obligated to protect wildlife too, he said. Salmon advocates say that farmers with junior water rights know the water can be cut off when a severe drought hits.

But as bad as the problems are along the Columbia, it's worse for farmers in the Roza district and others along the Yakima River.

There, all of the farmers -- such as Dick Boushey -- have junior water rights. This means cities, wildlife and out-of-district farmers with senior water rights drink first. If anything is left, the 72,000 acres of Roza district cropland gets it.

The farmers here know this. It's as much as part of the landscape as the 95-mile-long dirt canal that snakes past their farms. Most years it has delivered plenty of water. The steady supply encouraged farmers to plant high-value permanent or perennial crops, first apples and now grapes. Over the past 20 years, the change has been remarkable. Perennial crops, which covered 45 percent of the Roza farmland in 1980, now cover 72 percent.

In the past four to five years, Boushey has removed 40 acres of apples and replanted mostly with grapes on his 135 acres in Grandview.

Though his Rainier cherries are doing well -- and returning handsome profits of between $5,000 and $7,000 an acre -- Boushey said that grapes are more reliable.

"Cherries are riskier because they're more vulnerable to frost and rain," Boushey said. "It's a gamble."

Already Boushey has contracts for his wine grapes, all red, with several different wineries. In the past he's netted an average of $3,500 to $4,000 an acre for grapes. Juice grapes bring in roughly $1,400 an acre, Boushey said.

Because grapes require less water -- 2.9 acre-feet per acre per season compared with 4.7 acre-feet for annual crops like alfalfa -- water use has dropped over time. But it also has raised the minimum amount of water needed each year. Unlike an annual row crop that won't be planted when the water supply dips, the need from vineyards, orchards and hopyards remains the same. Cut off water, and years of investment are lost.

"I don't have a choice," said Kenneth Lewis, who farms 400 acres of grapes and apples near Prosser. "Without water, I lose a vineyard."

The Roza Irrigation District and others in the Yakima Valley are tightly policing water consumption.

A lock and silver chains on the irrigation equipment in Boushey's fields prevent him from turning on his water himself. The irrigation district employs 12 "ditch writers" who turn water on and off for the farmers.

"It's just so we have complete control," said Mike Mathis, Roza's head watermaster. "It's not a new thing. It's been in place for a long time, but we'll be really, particularly sure that everything is locked up this year."

© 1998-2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 18, 2001


As a former agriculturist in the Yakima Valley, I should point out that the irrigation district would employ "ditch riders" and the chains are the usual steel.

-- Jay Woods (woodsjay@home.com), April 18, 2001.

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