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Thin Snowpack Has Farmers Worried Throughout The Northwest

Anna King
03/17/2010

From Oregon's Klamath Basin to Washington's Yakima Valley, Northwest farmers know they are in for a tough summer. Growers are scrambling around their crop plans. The region's three governors are considering drought declarations for certain parts of their states. A lack of snowfall in the mountains is to blame. Correspondent Anna King visited a farmer near Prosser, Washington, who's in the middle of making tough decisions to survive.

TRANSCRIPT

Jim Willard knew there wasn't enough winter snow to keep all his land in production this summer. He knew even before federal water managers told him. Willard could see the warm winter and recent sunny weather in his cherries and grapes. The buds in Yakima Valley, Washington, are swelling nearly two weeks early. But he's glad for some recent cooler weather.

Jim Willard: "That's good as far as I'm concerned, because it's slowing these buds down. It's slowing the cherry development down. I'm really concerned that the frost is going to get them."

Willard farms about 400 acres of grapes, cherries and apples. But all that green depends on water and there just isn't enough of it.

The Bureau of Reclamation told him and his neighbors they'd be 30 percent short this year. That has Willard managing his water nearly down to the drop.

Jim Willard: "Some of the neighbors I know have not been able to deal with it efficiently, or physically or emotionally, and they aren't around anymore. You can look down the road at the number of farmers that are left out here, there are a lot less than 10 years or 40 years ago."

The reservoir system for the Yakima Valley depends a lot on winter snow pack. That's true for much of the region's best farm production areas. Oregon and Idaho farmers face a similarly tough year.

Greg Addington is the executive director of the Klamath Reclamation Project in southern Oregon. Farmers there recently signed a long term water management plan with the federal government and tribes. But many provisions of that deal don't take effect for some time. Addington says the problem is they need to plant now, and they don't know yet how much water they have to work with this summer.

Greg Addington: "We are really concerned now, people are very anxious. We know the water can be shut off here 100 percent. It's happened before. We are working very hard with tribes, with federal and state agencies to try and figure out exactly what's going to happen. But right now the lack of information is the killer for us."

In Idaho, farmers are also watching the mountains closely. Hal Anderson is the assistant director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. He says this year most farmers will make out just fine because last year was an average water year. But this winter's poor snowpack doesn't bode well for the future.

Hal Anderson: "The real concern for us is what happens next year. So we are probably going to exhaust most of our reservoir storage this year, and that will put us in a vulnerable position should we have a dry winter next winter."

Back at the ranch in Yakima, Jim Willard says sometimes the lack of water in drought years stresses him out. But this is the ground his father and mother chose to farm. He says it might be hard for someone who doesn't grow things to understand why he sticks it out even in bad water years. But you'd get it, come cherry bloom time when the bees are buzzing or in September when he's picking apples and grapes. Jim Willard: "It's hard work, but you get to load the truck and see the truck go down the road. You're trying to fulfill something."

The final Northwest water outlook is still uncertain — many areas could be saved by a wet spring. But drought declarations by governors across the region could help some financial aid flow if the water doesn't.

I'm Anna King in Prosser.

© Copyright 2010, Northwest News Network

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