Farmers Face Accusations of Stealing Yakima River Water
It's starting to sound like a cloak-and-dagger mystery, but it's deadly serious. If you thought we had it bad in Tri-Cities, up the Lower Valley, it's getting worse.
As the drought worsens for the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley, tempers are flaring, fields are dying, and some farmers are accusing others of "stealing" water in the middle of the night!
According to the Yakima Herald, "desperate" is the situation facing the Lower Valley water suppliers and irrigation districts. Acre after acre of alfalfa lies burned and crisp, cattle are being fed baled hay (which they usually don't get til winter). And one farmer describes the drought as "tons of money" being flushed down the toilet.
The Wapato Irrigation Project is now coming under focus, and for some, fire and criticism, because of it's inability to deliver even rationed amounts of water. The aging system relies on World War II technology, is understaffed and under funded.
Assessment disputes of land in the district, according to the Government Accounting Office, have left the district millions of dollars short on funding. This money could have been used to update and modernize equipment, and keep pace with farming irrigation technology.
Now, accusations are flying about theft of water by farmers are coming thick and fast. Every year, officials and ditch riders, workers who patrol the canals, find a few examples of minor attempts to pump water illegally from canals etc. But this year, it's rampant. According to the Yakima Herald:
"... ditch riders are instructed to lock canal gates, but they often find them cut by somebody in the night. They’ve also found checkboards — tiered wooden dams made from wood slats used to pool up or divert water in varying amounts — sawed in half. This spring, they discovered a metal cap had been torched off a drought well so an unknown irrigator could pipe the water away.
The Wapato District has between 60 and 70 special drought wells drilled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs after the severe drought of 1977, but they can only be used with a special permit. Some farmers, say officials, are trying to bypass the minimum $700 application fee - which doesn't guarantee a farmer will actually get the water. More and more often, officials are finding the locks on these wells have been cut, and attempts made to pump water out of them.