A review of the 2015 water season and drought, and how KID managed the situation.

The overwhelming response to the drought from KID customers this last irrigation season has been one expressing support and understanding. However, there are lingering questions we would like to take time to address. Some customers may still be wondering why KID implemented a watering schedule, changed that schedule at times, and enforced adherence to the watering schedule. There are even those who believe KID manufactured the severity of the drought.

Water management, water supply, and water rights are extremely complex legal, emotional, and political issues. Their complexity is only increasing throughout the western United States, and the Yakima Basin, in particular. When the governor declared a statewide drought and the United States Bureau of Reclamation released the TWSA (total water supply available) to irrigation districts in the Yakima Project, we learned that this drought was something our state had not faced before: a snowpack drought. It was imperative that KID act quickly, using the best information available in order to ensure the best outcome for the people we serve.

Senior management staff evaluated what worked and didn’t work during the last two droughts and created a schedule that balanced demand with the limited supply. Although the schedule was imperfect, it worked. Once the schedule was in effect, it was changed one time due to extremely low flows in the Yakima River and then it was reinstated when river flows increased. Other changes were made to allow our customers to receive the full benefit of what was available (see return flows below). KID allowed the addition of spot watering when flows increased and removed spot watering when water to KID was reduced. We added a third day to the weekly watering schedule in late summer when increased water supply was available, and ultimately scheduling was terminated when it became possible to do so.

As stated earlier, water issues are complex, legal, emotional, and political. Did you know that the Yakima River, and not the Columbia River, is the KID’s water source? KID was built as a Yakima River supplied project over five decades ago. The KID does not have the legal right or facilities to withdraw water from the Columbia River. KID has been working on the ability to withdraw from the Columbia River for over twenty years. Those efforts have not been successful. KID is the last bureau project on the Yakima River. Because of this, our water right allows us to claim return flows over the designated target flow amount measured at the Prosser Dam.

Water that is returned to the Yakima River by upstream users through operational spills or seepage is especially helpful during low water years. These flows returning to the river system are known as return flows and are a challenge to predict. Factors such as daily ambient air temperature and precipitation impact volume. KID knows the amount of water we will be receiving at the Prosser Dam just twenty-nine hours in advance. Return flows do provide more water to the District than otherwise would be there, but our supply is impacted by conservation projects up basin, further complicating an already complex situation.

Dynamic watering schedules were critical to proactively managing anticipated and limited water supplies, because of the unpredictability of our reduced water supply and the on-demand nature of our delivery system. The dynamic schedules allowed us to provide an equitable portion of available water to all of our customers in order to put it to beneficial use, while putting the least amount of stress on the infrastructure as possible. Enforcement of the schedule — a first for KID — was required to help ensure water could be supplied equitably to all. Without enforcement the schedule would have been less successful. Out of 23,249 accounts, only a few hundred citations were issued, and most people complied with the first warning.

No one knows with certainty when the next drought will occur, but when it does, look for KID to use what worked and operate similarly to how we managed the 2015 drought.