CASHMERE — It took Fred Berger, foreman of the Peshastin Irrigation District, nearly two weeks to fasten metal plates over intake pipes to restrict how much water orchardists could draw from the district’s 14-mile-long canal.
He started July 29, but he had more than 200 water boxes containing the intakes to tend to, many of them serving multiple customers.
District Manager Joel Teeley feared growers might revolt and tear the plates off. He was relieved when that didn’t happen.
It’s the first time in recent memory, if not its 100-year history, that the Peshastin Irrigation District has had to ration water because of drought.
The district’s 400 orchardists, mainly pear growers, have been getting only two-thirds of their normal water supply in August, a month when they depend on a full supply to maximize growth of their fruit.
The reduction may cause early Bartlett pears and later d’Anjous to drop a full size — and that would collectively cost the district’s growers $2 million or more, depending on the volume of fruit at various sizes, says Jim Robertson, a district board member and grower.
Robertson himself is among those who have been hardest hit.
He is one of fewer than a dozen growers on the western edge of Cashmere who are at the end of the district’s canal and who were down to 25 percent of normal flow on Aug. 11, 12 and 13.
Residents along Cashmere’s Pioneer Avenue in and west of the city lost virtually all of their irrigation water from the system for the same three days. Flow was so low that the last three-fourths of a mile of the canal dried up, Teeley said.
Usually excess water at the end of the canal flows into Brender Creek and, from there, into the Wenatchee River.
Flow returned to the lower portion of the canal on Aug. 14 only because growers higher on the line turned off irrigation lines around trees as they began to pick pears, Teeley said.
In talking to longtime district users, Teeley believes it’s the first time the end of the canal went dry for that long. Even in the drought years of 1977 and 2001, flows ceased for just hours at a time. That happens even in good water years because of flow fluctuations caused by users turning water on and off without notifying the district, he said.
With one-third less water, growers have been watering less, and those affected the most had to cut back more, Robertson said.
Some say heat is more of a problem than lack of water.
Pears generally are one size smaller this year, but more from sustained heat than lack of water, said Dave Burnett, fieldman for Peshastin Hi-Up Growers, who serves growers in both the Peshastin and Icicle irrigation districts.
The Icicle has enough water, said Teeley, who manages both districts. The Peshastin is hurting because it has no reservoirs to feed it other than Lake Colchuck, which mainly serves the Icicle, he said.
Robertson said the heat and water issues are related. “If we had all the water we needed, maybe heat wouldn’t be as much of a factor. Heat stresses the tree and water revives it,” he said.
Growers are concerned and some are angry, Robertson said.
“There’s an old saying that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over,” he said, while noting most have kept their cool.
Teeley was worried things could turn ugly when Berger placed the plates over intakes, reducing water to all users from 6.75 gallons of water per minute per acre to 4.5 gallons.
“We expected a whole bunch of tampering, that people would come right around behind us and rip them (the plates) off, but no one has,” Teeley said.
Berger put notices on each box, telling growers to leave them alone. A district employee inspects the boxes daily, riding along the canal on a motorcycle.
The Peshastin Irrigation District serves about 800 users on 4,000 acres from the Big Y to Cashmere. About half the users are growers and half are residential users, including the Cashmere and Treadwell cemeteries, the Cashmere Convalescent Center, the Chelan-Dryden Airport and the Chelan County Fairgrounds.
But the fairgrounds didn’t run out of water and probably won’t because it gets its water from a higher point on the canal, on Flowery Divide, Teeley said. No other nonagricultural users were affected.
There should be enough water, now that picking has started, to keep orchards at their two-thirds ration until picking hits full swing around Sept. 1, Teeley said. At that point, demand will be low enough that he no longer will be worried.
The Peshastin district began getting additional water from the Icicle on July 4, a date matching the prior early record of the drought year of 1977, Teeley said. Normally, it happens around Aug. 1. Without it, the canal wouldn’t have any water, he said.
The Icicle can supply only 70 percent of the Peshastin’s needs because of a limited connection between the two systems, he said.
In July, Teeley calibrated his annual release of water from Lake Colchuck to better manage its use in future drought years.
Elsewhere in North Central Washington:
Hay farmers in the Methow Valley have had few or no third cuttings because of junior water rights shut off on the Methow River, said Greg Knott, Methow subbasin liaison for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Junior water rights also have been suspended on the Wenatchee and Okanogan rivers for low flow.
The Okanogan Irrigation District is using emergency water rights on the Okanogan River but anticipates getting through the season with full delivery, said Tom Sullivan, district manager. But the river may be in danger of falling below 300 cubic feet per second of flow, which would threaten district operations, he said.
On Aug. 15, the Wenatchee River at Monitor and Plain, the Entiat River near Ardenvoir and the Stehekin River at Stehekin all posted daily record-low flows.
Dan Wheat may be reached at 664-7150 or by e-mail at email@example.com