Corn stands brown and stunted, where it grows at all. Alfalfa fields look like weedy city lots. Cows eat baled hay, something they normally don’t get until November, because their pastures have no grass.
All the while, accusations of water theft fly amid suspicions — and some evidence — that growers are dropping pumps into ditches in the middle of the night, cutting away locks and sawing through dams.
“It’s just horrible,” said Jeremy Waterman, general manager of El Rancho Bella Vista, a corn and alfalfa farm. “It’s tons and tons of money down the toilet. It’s a total disaster.”
Hampered by drought, hot weather, a lack of employees and decades of deferred maintenance, the Wapato Irrigation Project is struggling to deliver even rationed amounts of water to its growers this season.
“It’s just a boiling pot of water sitting there,” said Edwin Lewis, administrator of the 225-square-mile project operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Delivery, maintenance and management problems are nothing new for the 17 irrigation districts throughout the West operated by the bureau. Government Accountability Office reports since the 1970s detail deficiencies, as well as millions of dollars in funding shortages because of assessment disputes.
Some of the pumphouses in the Wapato project were built in the 1930s and rely on World War II-era equipment. The system was designed to recirculate field runoff, but many farmers have switched from furrow irrigation to drip or sprinklers, boosting on-farm efficiencies but leaving less for the downstream users.
This year’s drought has made all these normal problems worse.
“Way, way, way, way worse,” Waterman said, pointing to a bone-dry ditch he said was scheduled to be full that day. One of his fields of corn may suffer a 70 percent loss, based on an inspection by a farm consultant.
His neighbors are in a similar boat.
Andy Curfman, a Granger-area farmer, said, “I got fields today that have not seen water all year long.”
Steve Bangs, a dairy owner who also raises beef cattle and grows corn, alfalfa, wheat and mint, has completely given up on one corn field near the Yakima River — at the very end of the Track Lateral Canal —while he is feeding hay bales to his beef cows, something livestock producers usually do to get through the winter, not summer.
The farmers don’t blame the Wapato project for the drought, and they planned as best they could for rationing.
For example, Bangs and Curfman planted more drought-resistant wheat instead of corn this year to adjust for the expected shortage.
The Wapato Irrigation Project includes land with both senior rights, which get a full allotment in drought years, and younger, junior rights, which get rationed amounts. The project leaders averaged those acres out and decided to try to deliver 65 percent to all the irrigators in the district, opening and closing gates to farmers on a rotation, Lewis said.
However, the maintenance, management and theft problems have prevented growers at the end of some canals — some of them 25 miles long — from getting even a ration when their turn comes up in the rotation. The long canals sometimes take an extra day or two to fill up — or water never reaches the end at all — by the time the rotation ends.
“Everybody can run on 60 percent,” Curfman said. “It’s not easy, but you can run on 60 percent because you can make adaptation. But if you have zero, you can’t do anything.”
The project’s ditch riders and water masters hear generalized complaints about water theft every year, this year more than others, Lewis said.
Lewis instructs the ditch riders to lock canal gates, but they often find them cut by somebody in the night. They also have found checkboards — tiered wooden dams made from wood slats used to pool up or divert water in varying amounts — sawed in half. This spring, they discovered a metal cap had been torched off a drought well so an unknown irrigator could pipe the water away.
The project has between 50 or 60 such drought wells drilled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs after the 1977 drought. They are available with a special permit only issued in drought conditions.
This year, the project has received numerous drought-well permit applications, each one costing $700.
The project has 57 employees, about half of what Lewis would consider a full staff, who try to respond to specific allegations or instances when possible. But the culprits are hard to catch.
“We’ve heard generalizations, but we haven’t had anything specific,” he said.
Accusations of water theft occur in other districts, too.
In past droughts, ditch riders for the Roza Irrigation District, with mostly junior rights, have patrolled at night looking for evidence of illegal pumping, said Scott Revell, district manager. The district also took one orchard manager to court for stealing about 100 acre-feet of water during the 2005 drought after he was caught on videotape by an investigator hired by his ex-wife.
That’s rare, Revell said, but concerns are not.
“You always have some disputes between neighbors when you have open ditches and drought conditions,” Revell said. “But having metered delivery helps a lot.”
More than half the Roza District now has piped delivery and water meters that deter theft because it’s so carefully tracked, he added.
In the Wapato Irrigation Project, few places have such pipes and meters. Some were installed this year, modeled after Roza’s, but high costs make the upgrades slow going.
Growers also feel like they have no true voice in the management of the Wapato Irrigation Project.
“We can complain, but they don’t listen,” said Lon Inaba, president of the Yakama Reservation Irrigation District, an advisory board consisting of irrigators who receive water from the project and fund the program through assessments.
The Wapato Irrigation Project once was a crown jewel among Western irrigation systems that relied on melting snowpack, said Inaba, a third-generation grower whose grandfather helped dig some of the canals riding on horseback. The staff included well-trained water engineers, hydrologists and fabricators, while skilled mechanics manned the shops, he said.
Inaba also hears accusations of theft but hears just as many stories of neighbors sharing water. People have done it for him and he has done the same for others, even though he plans to cut early his harvest of zucchini and squash this year because of water shortages.
Everybody is hurting.
“It’s going to be a tough year for everybody,” he said.