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News / Northwest

Washington orchardists prepare for water shortage, conservation

By Gabriel Garcia, The Wenatchee World
Published: April 14, 2024, 4:24pm

WENATCHEE — Washington orchards are preparing for water shortages with a possible drought after a winter of low snowpack levels.

Chelan and Douglas counties are still in a drought advisory issued in July 2023, said Jimmy Norris, Ecology communications manager. A drought emergency declaration from that time is also still in place for 12 watersheds in parts of Skagit, Whatcom, Clallam, Kittitas, Yakima, Snohomish, Jefferson, Walla Walla, Columbia, Okanogan, Benton, and Klickitat counties.

The Department of Ecology said it is “concerned about the impacts for water availability in summer,” in a press release in March.

A March 1 Lake Chelan Basin water supply forecast and snow survey summary by the Chelan County PUD said the “preliminary water supply forecast for the Lake Chelan drainage basin from April through July is 65% of average, decreasing from last month’s forecast of 68% of average.”

“It is looking pretty likely we are going to have a shortage (of water) this year, particularly in some basins,” said Jon DeVaney, Washington State Tree Fruit Association president. “So there are a lot of concerns growers are laying out their contingency plans and water managers are prepping for a short water year even when an official drought has not been declared.”

A shortage of water could mean orchard growers are limited on how much water they can use for their produce from irrigation districts, DeVaney said.

DeVaney said depending on the crop, a low water supply doesn’t necessarily mean a loss in production, but it can cause stress on the trees if they’re not given adequate water, and that can result in fruit not having the standard quality in size and shape that is expected from Washington.

Other farmers who grow vegetables and grain may choose not to plant seeds this year because of a short water supply and may opt to lease their water reserves to other farmers for the season, DeVaney said.

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Using water for orchards isn’t just for growing trees and produce, but to also keep trees cool in hot conditions.

“Often we have in orchards the need for overhead cooling water to prevent produce from getting sunburned in the hottest days in summer, so some growers might be looking at using shade cloth for example,” he said.

But alternatives don’t come at zero cost, DeVaney added.

When growers want to use shade cloth to reduce the amount of sunlight on the trees, it can cost from $800 to $1,000 an acre for materials and the labor to set it up and take it down, DeVaney said.

“A lot of growers are going to not just worry about not having enough water, but they are going to be spending additional money that they really don’t feel they have this year to use some of those alternatives that might be available to them,” DeVaney said.

With labor and production costs rising, DeVaney said some growers may not have all the finances to protect their farms from a drought.

A way orchardists prepare for a low water year is by changing their sprinkler systems. DeVaney said many growers will switch their sprinkler systems from overhead sprinklers to misters to get evaporative cooling and use less water. Another sprinkler growers use is a drip system to water certain points of trees to manage stress while using minimal amounts of water.

DeVaney said there is also technology to monitor soil moisture in orchards, which is a practice most orchardists already use, but an anticipated low water supply this summer may convince those orchardists who haven’t invested in that technology to make a change.

Sometimes irrigation districts turn off water for conservation for a few days, so many farmers have on-farm ponds to use in emergencies, DeVaney said. He said farmers also use the ponds for frost control when temperatures are cold.

Devaney said growers are still watching weather forecasts and hoping it is not a hot summer, and more spring rain comes to increase water supply.

“There’s a number of factors that can still affect how serious this is, but it’s never good news to hear there may not be a normal supply of one of the more critical resources to produce food,” DeVaney said.

The Washington cherry harvest will begin around late May, Devaney said. He added that the Washington State Fruit Commission will announce the official harvest date in mid-May with an estimation of how many cherries will be harvested in the state.