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Tough watering choices for irrigators

PROSSER - With the state now in a full blown drought emergency, Yakima Valley farmers may face some tough crop choices during the 2005 growing season.

At greatest risk are those junior water right farmers who will be faced with having to divide their limited water supply between their apples and their grapes. The decision is made doubly difficult if drought conditions worsen, which most likely will happen, said tree fruit and grape production expert Jack Watson Jr. of the Benton County Extension office in Prosser.

Snowfall this past winter in the Cascade Mountains, a source of water heavily relied upon by Yakima Valley farmers for their summer irrigation water, is at less than 30 percent of normal snowpack, the lightest snowpack since 1977.

Water experts, who are still hopeful that spring snowstorms and rains will bring some relief to the dire outlook, have already told junior water right farmers that their supply will be severely limited and to expect water interruptions as a fact of life.

Watson said most Roza Irrigation District farmers don't have a lot of annual crops, as much of the Roza District is planted in perennial crops.

However, those farmers who do have annual crops will have to make some hard choices concerning which crops to plant for the most profit.

"Farmers will be forced to decide which crop will bring the best return for their situation and possibly which crops to plans which will use the smallest amounts of water," he explained.

For tree fruit and grape farmers the choices will be just as difficult, Watson said. Farmers may have to decide which trees and vineyards will best survive a starvation diet of water this summer, he said.

"Some trees and vines will survive one year of drought conditions but others may have to be sacrificed," he said.

"Farmers could find themselves having to choose between watering their Red Delicious apples or their Merlot grapes," Watson said.

The decision will likely be made based on which crop will give the farmer the best income value in the long run, Watson explained.

He said some farmers may also choose to let their land go fallow for the season, while others will seek possible water transfers in order to survive the dry conditions.

"This year's priorities will have to be made," he said.

"If you only have a little bit of water, which crop are you going to make your top priority?" Watson said.

The good news is that most of the established perennial crops, such as mature grapes and fruit trees, can survive one year of low water supplies.

"But that doesn't help young trees or grapes, which require a lot of water during their first year of growth," he said

Farmers may elect to save their young, new stock and let older, less profitable varieties go a year without water. "It's not an easy thing to decide," he said.

But when faced with making an income from their crops weighed against the amount of water available, deciding to save new trees may be some farmers' only choice, he said.

"Things look pretty dire right now, and the weather patterns don't look to improve during the next several months," Watson said.

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