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Applications to use emergency drought wells starting to pile up

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The water in the Yakima River near Parker Dam may look plentiful, but Yakima Valley farmers are already beginning to scramble for additional sources of water once the mountain reservoir levels begin to drop. Many farmers are seeking to reopen emergency wells dug during past drought years, a plan which requires the approval of the state Department of Ecology.

YAKIMA - There are 53 emergency drought well applications awaiting the approval of Department of Ecology officials in the Yakima water resource office. Every day more applications are coming from Yakima Valley farmers, who are facing one of the worst droughts in the Valley's recorded history.

But before the farmers can start pumping water from the Valley's precious aquifers, they have to pass inspection by the officials from the DOE.

Just three weeks ago the DOE had promised farmers a 15-day turn-around in approving their applications to reopen emergency drought wells. Now, the DOE's delay in the application approval process is about to end.

The delay was the result of the confusion about how the applications are to be processed, said Bob Barwin of the Yakima DOE office.

Tuesday, farmers gathered in Yakima to learn what criteria the DOE's hydrologists will be using in making their decisions to the crucial water requests. More than 70 area farmers attended the DOE's informational emergency drought workshop to learn how their water requests will be processed.

DOE will examine four areas, Barwin said. They include aquifers, existing water rights, existing wells and surface water conditions, he said.

Barwin shared charts and maps of where existing drought wells are located in the Central Washington region, from Kittitas County to Benton County.

The majority of the drought wells are located in the Roza Irrigation District between Sunnyside and the Tri Cities.

Barwin told the farmers that the DOE, which monitors the drought wells, will be gauging the impact on the aquifers.

"We are getting many calls and walk-in clients asking questions about the drought and emergency wells in particular," he said.

But before previously drilled emergency drought wells will be approved for reopening, Barwin and his team will seek to lease water to offset the effects of the drought. "Just as the Roza Irrigation District is attempting to purchase water rights to give the district two additional weeks of water, we will be seeking alternatives to drilling new wells," Barwin said.

In addition, each emergency drought well application will be evaluated for its impact on the aquifers and wells in the surrounding areas, Barwin said.

He said there is no question that many of the existing wells will be reopened during the drought emergency, but he cautioned that some restrictions may also be put into place. Some of the wells were drilled as long as 25 years ago while others were drilled in 1994 and 2001, Barwin said.

The existing wells may only be used for existing crops, not new crops during the emergency, he cautioned.

The larger message to the farmers, who are facing critical crop choices this year, is to conserve water where possible, to share water where possible and to make careful consideration of how many acre-feet of water each crop will need for this year.

"We will be making every effort to address farmers' needs, but we will also be making careful evaluation of each application," Barwin said.

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