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Roza Irrigation District facing dire drought conditions this summer

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(The Center Square) – A dry, potentially devastating summer is ahead for growers in the Yakima Basin in south-central Washington.

As previously reported by The Center Square, a less than impressive snowpack this winter – for a region already in drought – could force some growers out of business.

Scott Revell manages the Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima Basin.

We’re at the point where we’re right at the razor’s edge, going from significant losses to calamity,” Revell told The Center Square.

The water supply forecast is at 47% according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the lowest since 2015 during the last severe drought.

“Every percentage point off the water supply that we go down at this level is four days of running time,” he explained. “A 2% drop will cut eight days off the season.”

That means eight days without water to irrigate crops.

The Roza Irrigation District covers more than 72,000 acres of farms growing fruit, wine grapes, hops, corn and much more.

“It’s about 100 miles long, so we’re a long skinny district geographically, and it runs more or less from Selah to Benton City,” Revell said.

The problem for Roza is its status as a junior water rights district, meaning it doesn’t get “first dibs” on available water.

“After 43 years of litigation over every molecule in the basin, the end result is that Roza, along with the Kittitas Reclamation District, we have a pro-ratable water right,” said Revell. “That means we get cut back and this year we’re looking at a little bit less than half of our supply.”

The temporary solution is to lease available water from other sources.

“It costs us $240,000 a day to lease water to keep the canal running for one day at bare minimum flows,” Revell said, “so that’s $10,000 an hour.”

The Washington State Department of Ecology is taking applications from impacted growers to offset a small portion of what they are paying to lease water for crops.

The reimbursement rate offered by Ecology is helpful, Revell said, but it keeps going down.

“In the prior drought, it was 50%, and before that it was 100%,” he said. “So, it’s been this slow steady change over time.”

Revell wouldn’t speculate how many farmers they may lose this year over the drought emergency, but he said the situation is grim.

“Growers are already juggling water around because of the reduced amount, and many of them, especially the smaller family farms, are already having a tough time competing,” he said. “Labor costs, fuel costs, insurance costs are all really bleeding out those smaller operations.”

Revell said large investors are moving into the area.

“We do have some institutional investors, whether it’s a hedge fund or a teachers retirement fund. We historically have not had that many outside investors, but that’s changing,” he said. “Everybody wants family farms, but nobody ever does anything to help them.”

Revell said he’s always talking with people expressing sadness about the loss of the family farm.

“Everyone likes looking at a pastoral landscape, and they like the idea of buying locally sourced food, but farmers also have to make economically rational decisions,” he noted. “So if somebody comes in and makes a good offer, they’re probably going to take a hard look at it.”

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