YAKIMA — Drought conditions this year have already prompted farmers to drill drought relief wells in the upper Yakima Basin, where the irrigation district plans an early shutoff.

The Kittitas Reclamation District plans to shut off water early this season, about mid-September.

That’s too early for some growers who rely on a fall supply, said Phil Hull, facilities manager at Zirkle Fruit Co.

“With tree fruit, that’s during harvest — you can’t be without water,” he said. “It can impact the current crop. You have a crop, but the quality won’t be as good. And the trees won’t be as good the next year if you stress them too much.”

Zirkle has installed two drought relief wells, bringing the number of wells to four that it will rely on this season when surface water is shut off.

Washington Fruit also has installed two drought relief wells this year in the upper basin.

So far, those four are the only drought relief wells installed this year, according to the state Department of Ecology.

Roza Irrigation District manager Scott Revell said he’s yet to hear of an application for such a well in his district, but says that could change.

“I know that I’m getting a lot of calls about wells — ‘how does it look?’ ” he said.

Drought and an over-allocated basin are forcing farmers, irrigators and environmentalists to devise creative ways to provide adequate water for crops and fish.

The Kittitas Reclamation District has prorated water rights, meaning they are inferior to what are called senior water rights. This year, senior water right holders receive a full supply while the juniors are expected to receive only about 72 percent, according to water forecasts by the Bureau of Reclamation.

KRD plans an early shutdown to stay within its allocation this year while leaving enough water in the river for fish, said manager Urban Eberhart.

“It’s not getting any better,” he said. “Certainly, we’ve been doing some calculation on how we can better operate our canal system.”

Mitigation

Tapping groundwater for irrigation comes at a cost to the growers and the state, said Tom Tebb, regional director of the state Department of Ecology.

“When you’re pumping these wells, you’re taking someone’s water right,” he said.

Farmers must acquire a permit from Ecology before drilling a drought relief well, and there are stiff requirements.

Farmers must be facing an allocation of no more than 70 percent and show the hardship it would cause to go without additional water, Tebb said.

A 75 percent supply is what triggers a state drought declaration.

But the standard for a drought relief well is higher in the Yakima Basin to meet other goals under the Yakima Basin integrated water management plan — a basinwide plan to improve water conservation and assure enough water for crops, fish and domestic use.

Farmers also must pay for half the water they use from the well, he said.

Zirkle already has paid for the water it expects to use from its four wells this season, Hull said.

He said the Kittitas Reclamation District is working hard to get everyone the water they need in trying times.

“It’s a short water year and it impacts everyone in the Valley, not just us,” Hull said. “The long-term solution for everyone is more water storage.”

A brief history

There haven’t always been strict requirements for drought relief wells.

Farmers began drilling such wells in about 1980, after the Valley was parched by the 1977 drought, Tebb said.

Many wells were drilled, but not all farmers were reporting their use to the state, he said.

“We had some who would just turn their wells on and not say anything to us,” Tebb said. “Those days are over.”

The stiffer requirements came during the 2015 drought, when the state authorized 42 emergency drought relief wells, said Trevor Hutton, section manager for Ecology’s water resource program.

The number of drought relief wells across the basin isn’t clear. Revell estimated about 105.

Many may have been decommissioned. If they are not used for several years, they go bad, Tebb said.

Ecology is planning to document the wells drilled for drought relief and whether they are still in use, he said.

“That’s something the Yakama Nation asked us to do and we’re working on it,” he said.

The Yakama Nation is one of the largest senior water rights holders in the basin.