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Farmers can work together to get through this year's drought

The most precious commodity to farmers as they prepare for the upcoming growing season, especially this year, is the availability of irrigation water. With rivers at record low flows, snowpack nowhere near normal in the mountain passes and rainfall below normal in the Yakima Valley, farmers and growers are beginning to look for different ways to make the most of the water they have available to them.

Marie Zuroske, a resource technician with the South Yakima Conservation District, said her office has been receiving calls from concerned farmers in the area wanting to know what can be done this year.

Zuroske said she has heard that a lot of people seem to be interested in selling their water allotments to the Roza Irrigation District this year. She added that she has heard a mix of responses from farmers who are deciding whether or not to try to bring in a crop this year. Zuroske said it seems that those with junior water rights are concentrating on just getting their trees through this year so they can have a crop next season.

The South Yakima Conservation District recently compiled various information outlining different ways local growers can get the most out of the water they do have. Suggestions range from changing sprinkler heads to water sharing.

"In past droughts it's something neighbors have worked together on," Zuroske said of water sharing.

She explained that water sharing is when two neighboring farmers work out a gentleman's agreement that allows one farmer to use both farmers' water allotments one day, and the other farmer to use all of the water the next day.

"They'll take turns using each other's water," Zuroske said.

She added that this allows farmers who might not have enough water to even prime their sprinkler systems with their own allotment to get a little water on the ground with the help of his neighbor's water allotment.

"It's neighbors talking over the fence, seeing how they can help each other," Zuroske said of water sharing.

Other strategies to help local growers get through this year's impending drought include changing sprinkler heads from impact nozzles, or traditional sprinkler heads, to rotator nozzles. Zuroske said rotator nozzles are more efficient, using less water and offering less of a chance for water to evaporate before it hits the ground.

The South Yakima Conservation District also suggests farmers using central pivot systems, who do not have enough water to run those systems, should think about installing shut-off valves on each sprinkler head. This will reduce the number of nozzles being used during each pass, and allow for the system to be operated during the season.

As for just how much water crops typically require, the conservation district notes that fruit trees, with limb spreads of one to seven feet, typically require two gallons of water a day to survive. Larger trees, with limb spreads of more than 23 feet, can require up to 14 gallons of water a day. The conservation district suggests heavy pruning, noting that it can improve survival chances, but also increases the risk of future decreases in production.

According to the conservation district, water stress to trees can end up reducing the amount, size and quality of the fruit being grown.

Those growers who care for vineyards also need to be aware of the effects a lack of water can have on their vines. The conservation district notes that water stress can cause the most damage to vineyards in the late spring and early summer, adding that growers should "...fill the soil profile early in the season and as much as possible at irrigation cutoff." The conservation district also recommends growers keep cover crops well mowed between rows.

. Elena Olmstead can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail her at eolmstead@eaglenewspapers.com

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