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Major drought for Yakima Basin growers means paying more for irrigation water

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(The Center Square) – A dismal snowpack for Washington this past winter spells a bleak water picture for much of the state.

That has the Washington Department of Ecology declaring a new drought declaration.

The Yakima Basin is in bad shape with a water supply forecast at 47% according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That’s the lowest since 2015.

Emily Tasaka is the Central Region Communications Manager for the Department of Ecology.

“The reason that this was declared was because of snowpack, which was very very low this season,” Tasaka told The Center Square. “For junior water-rights holders, that is serious and this is going to impact them a lot this irrigation season.”

Tasaka said all water in the Yakima Basin is spoken for, “So if you want to use groundwater you have to have a permit from Ecology to do so. If you are a junior water rights holder in the Basin, you can’t pump any water until those senior water rights holders are fully satisfied,” she said.

DOE is opening up an emergency drought well program for growers, but it comes with a cost.

“They’ll have to provide mitigation and we can offer some financial assistance with that,” said Tasaka, “but this will help make up the difference for some of those folks that are going to be extremely hard hit by this drought.”

She explained growers in the Roza Irrigation District-covering some 72,000 acres of fertile ground-can apply for permits to pump groundwater.

“They can purchase from a water bank,” said Tasaka. “In this case, it’s coming from the Selah Moxee Irrigation District’s Water Bank.

“Mitigation is $300 per acre-foot,” she said, “and Ecology can offer a 25% match for up to 75% of someone’s normal water supply. So, for that $300 per acre-foot, someone would have to pay $225 and DOE would pay $75.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, tells The Center Square she has been encouraged by how DOE is working with landowners in her district.

“A lot of farmers don’t trust the government, but they’ve really been trying to work with us.”

“Our farmers, our agriculture community in the state of Washington, produce over 300 different crops in any given year,” said Warnick. “We feel like we have the opportunity to feed the world and without water, we’re not going to be able to grow those crops.”

Warnick’s family owns a farm in Moses Lake that is part of the Columbia Basin Irrigation District. Their water comes from the Columbia River and they have senior water rights, meaning if water is rationed due to drought, they are protected first for water rights over junior irrigation districts.

“I really feel for those producers in the Roza area,” she said. “Those producers are mostly fruit and you can’t just cut back and not plant one year, because those trees and the vineyards have to be kept alive for years in order to produce.”

Warnick says they are planning for the future and working with multiple agencies to avoid out-year drought impacts.

“We’re working a lot on water retention to save water from going down the river into the ocean,” said Warnick. “We have purchased the Springwood Ranch with 2,000 acres and plans are to work with Ecology, Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Reclamation, so we will have water.”

In the meantime, DOE is urging impacted farmers and growers in the Yakima Basin to contact the department about needed groundwater and help with the application process and potential financial assistance.

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