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Aging Irrigation Systems Lead To Crop Losses In The West


Farmers across the West are making do with less water than they're used to. But the problem isn't just a lack of rainfall and snow pack. There are also outdated irrigation systems. We're going to go now to the Yakama Nation Reservation in Washington state where old equipment has led to crop losses and conflict among farmers. Northwest Public Radio's Rowan Moore Gerety has our story.

ROWAN MOORE GERETY, BYLINE: Even at six-foot-four, Granger, Wash., farmer Andy Curfman says he's not used to looking out over the tops of his cornstalks in mid-summer.

ANDY CURFMAN: That plant should be pushing 10- to 12-foot tall. Some will be up to 14-foot tall. There's no doubt you have crop loss.

GERETY: Water on the Wapato Irrigation Project flows to farms through gravity-fed canals covering an area the size of Chicago. This year, the district got just over half the usual amount. But Curfman says there's a management problem too. Water delivery is supposed to rotate among farmers throughout the season, but some of his cornfields have gotten water just twice all year. Each other time his turn came up...

CURFMAN: The water never ever showed up down here. It was consumed by all the other farmers in the district.

GERETY: Curfman and many other farmers on the reservation are white. Many lease their land from the Yakama tribe. The irrigation district itself is run by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

LARRY NELSON: Right up here is where we divert our water from the river.

GERETY: On a drive around the district, manager Larry Nelson stops near a turnout, a gate where water drains out of the irrigation canals and onto an individual farmer's land.

NELSON: What would be wrong with that turnout? There's no lock on it. Anybody could come and open it up and get whatever water they want.

GERETY: When water's short, anything consumed here takes away from farmers downstream.

NELSON: In years past, it was just allowed to happen, and those were good water years. Now we're in a bad water year, and you can't have that. You just can't.

GERETY: Nelson says the district has hundreds of unpermitted pumps that make it hard to keep track of how much water is used where. But fines for noncompliance are almost unheard of. There are more basic limitations too. Take what's called travel time. Let's say too much water is going down one canal. So, says Charles Burt, you reduce the flow.

CHARLES BURT: By the time that reduction gets down to the end of the canal, it may be a day later.

GERETY: By then, maybe conditions have changed and you need more water instead. Burt runs the irrigation program at California Polytechnic State University. He does consulting all over the country, including on the Yakama reservation. He says the most sophisticated irrigation systems have controls like a normal house so you can tell how much water's being used and turn it on and off at will. But those are the exception.

BURT: The further you get away from the field, the easier all this sounds. But when you get out and try to actually solve the problems, it just flat out takes money and time.

GERETY: Many districts throughout the West still can't say exactly how much water each farmer is getting. And as long as everyone got enough water, Burt says accurate measurement wasn't a big priority. But in a drought, that uncertainty leaves plenty of room for conflict. The way farmer Andy Curfman sees it, many of his peers are, quote, "stealing water."

CURFMAN: They're making their crop as normal, and other farmers are suffering.

GERETY: On the Yakama reservation, trust between farmers and irrigation managers is at an all-time low. The irrigation district is short staffed, and Curfman says it's incapable of keeping its canals locked and water deliveries on schedule. Farmers and water managers all talk about under-the-table payments and snipped padlocks that keep the situation from improving.

CURFMAN: The wild, wild West is here (laughter) 'cause that is happening.

GERETY: And Curfman thinks it's here to stay. For NPR News, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety in Yakama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rowan Moore Gerety joined KAZU as a news reporter in 2012. In addition to his reports on KAZU, Rowan is a regular contributor to Marketplace. He has written for the Atlantic, Slate, Foreign Policy, Guernica, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Common, among others, and produced radio stories for All Things Considered, Living on Earth, and the California Report. He served as the launch editor for the African Makers series on Medium, a collection of writing about creativity in business and social welfare around Africa. He studied anthropology at Columbia University, was a 2011-2012 Fulbright Scholar in Mozambique, a 2013 International Reporting Project (IRP) fellow in Nigeria, and received a 2013 Jon Davidoff scholarship at the Wesleyan Writers Conference.