As water availability grows scarcer every year in Central Washington due to prolonged drought periods and a gradually changing climate, the Kittitas County Conservation District (KCCD) continues to make progress on its multi-year effort to help farmers transition from rill irrigation to sprinkler irrigation systems.
With funding from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) over the past five years, District Manager Anna Lael and her team have managed to help farmers in and around Ellensburg, Wash., improve their water efficiency from 50-60% with rill irrigation to 75-85% with sprinklers.
“More farmers are realizing that they can make the water they have go further when they use sprinklers,” Lael said. “And, nowadays, that is especially important in districts that have junior water rights because they’re the ones who get cut off when there’s a shortage.”
She explained that when an agricultural water shortage occurs in the region, hay producers in the Kittitas Reclamation District, for example, don’t receive their expected water allocations to maintain their crops. These sudden shortages limit crop volumes, which inevitably leads to lost revenue.
“Sprinklers allow them to be more resilient in drought years,” Lael said. “Farmers have been seeing the benefits of switching to sprinklers because they help conserve water, and they aren’t as labor-intensive as rill irrigation systems.”
The RCPP is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which collaborates with farmers, ranchers, communities and other groups to protect natural resources on private lands.
The Washington Department of Ecology also has been instrumental in the KCCD’s work, providing $1 million for sprinkler conversions, while the Washington State Conservation Commission has contributed an additional $1.6 million.
The driving force behind the gradual acceptance of sprinklers has been the conservation district’s outreach campaign, which was expanded in 2017 after the KCCD and its co-recipient, the Yakama Nation, received a $7.5 million allocation through the RCPP.
“People are more open to converting to sprinklers now than they were 25 years ago because conditions are so much different today,” Lael said, noting that the RCPP money is set aside for specific projects but is not a grant. “They know they have to make changes to keep up, which is why we’ve gotten a lot more buy-in the past few years.”
The biggest challenge now, Lael added, is finding enough money to satisfy the increasing demand. Inflation has become a growing concern and material costs are causing farmers to delay the transition to sprinkler irrigation systems.
“The RCPP contract can only cover so much,” she said. “Farmers also have to pay their share.”
While the RCPP has helped KCCD accomplish its primary goal of helping farms convert to sprinkler irrigation, another key benefit of the program has been the improvements made in fish passage and screening for threatened species, such as Mid Columbia steelhead.
Lael said the conservation district has always sought to implement projects that simultaneously “benefit fish and keep the farmers farming.” With help from state and federal funds, KCCD has found a way to combine numerous conservation strategies to accomplish the goals outlined in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.
“Our interest is to improve water viability and conditions for fish,” she said. “We have been able to put enough funding sources together over the years so we can address all of these concerns, and that has been great for our staff and our district to be a part of.”
This story appeared in the Capital Press in February 2022.