Mismanaged Irrigation Systems Leave Farmers With Little Water

Jul 17, 2015

Water that reaches the lower end of the Wapato Irrigation Project has already traveled more than 20 miles through a network of ditches and canals covering an area the size of Chicago within the Yakama Nation Reservation. Lately, though, water hasn’t flowed at all in some corners of the project,  putting a dent in the $250 million of crops grown there each year.

On a tour of trouble spots, Bureau of Indian Affairs irrigation manager Larry Nelson pulls his truck over to inspect a bone-dry mud ditch. “It’s been probably, I wanna say, thirty days since this has seen water here,” he says.

Nearby, fields of stunted corn and brown-splotched potato plants are signs of drought in a year when Northwest rivers are at historic lows.

Farmers across the West are making do with less water than they’re used to. But the problem isn’t just water: in many cases, the irrigation systems they rely on suffer from outdated infrastructure and a culture of lax oversight.

The Wapato project’s water allotment has been cut by more than 40 percent. And even as most farmers are still getting enough water to keep their crops going in a dry year, the shortage has sharpened longstanding concerns over mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Over the years, the BIA has put off maintenance projects amounting to nearly $140 million. Current staffing levels on the project are just 50 percent.

When Larry Nelson stops again, it’s to point out an unremarkable “turnout”--a gate that lets water out of the canal and into an individual farmer’s field--on the right side of the road. “What would be wrong with that?” he asks. “There’s no lock on it--anybody could come and open it up and get whatever water they want.

When water’s tight, anything extra consumed at the start of the canal takes away from people downstream. As it is, Nelson says there are hundreds of unpermitted pumps and other diversions that make it hard to keep track of how much water is used where. “In years past, it was just allowed to happen, and those were good water years,” he says. “Now we’re in a bad water year, and you can’t have that, you just can’t.”

The most sophisticated irrigation systems have controls much like a normal house, so you can tell how much water’s being used and turn it on and off at will. But Charles Burt, who directs the irrigation program at Cal Poly, says those are the exception. In California, for instance, it’s been six years since a new state law required irrigation districts to measure how much water they deliver. “Probably half the districts are having serious problems with that,” Burt says. “The irrigation districts are not floating in money, and our knowledge of what we need to know has outpaced our ability to do certain things, much less the ability to pay for them.”

Burt, who does irrigation modernization consulting throughout the country, including at Wapato, says most water systems in the West were designed close to 100 years ago, when you could fill the whole system, and still have water left over. “Nobody complains when there’s plenty of water,” he says. “And if people take a little more, take a little less, it’s no sweat, it just runs off into the river.”

Today’s irrigation systems need to be more flexible, so water deliveries can be adjusted based on the weather, or re-routed to streams to support fish habitat. Outdated infrastructure makes that hard.

Take the question of “travel time.” On an older system, Burt says, “You make a change at the head end of a canal and it might take half a day, a whole day, two days for that change to reach the distant end, and meanwhile all kinds of conditions have changed.”

There’s also a culture of non-enforcement which Burt says is common throughout the West. Let’s say an employee comes across a farmer withdrawing water illegally. “These guys will say things like, you know, “My law’s a .44 magnum”—it’s not unusual to hear things like that—if the operator did try to make a change, though, the administrative system above him will not back him up. The result is, you just don’t try anymore.”

Managers at Wapato couldn’t recall a single instance in the last six years where users have been fined for non-compliance. Even at the upper end of the project, where the water comes in, grower Mike Cuillier says manmade management problems are part of the reason his apples are showing signs of stress. But  he doesn’t think things will improve anytime soon.

The Wapato Irrigation Project “is a rock that never gets moved.” Cuillier says.

But there is an upside, he says: Cuillier is almost 63. Soon enough, he’ll be retiring.

Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio