Ahtanum Irrigation District encompasses approximately 10,300 acres in the Ahtanum Valley of Washington State and has a history dating back to 1852. Sam Hull is a member of Ahtanum Irrigation District’s board of directors. In this conversation with Joshua Dill, the managing editor of Irrigation Leader, Mr. Hull discusses his district’s history and unique features and its ambitions to create a new reservoir and a pressurized delivery system.
Joshua Dill: Please tell our readers about your background and how you ended up working for Ahtanum Irrigation District.
Sam Hull: In 1892, my great-grandfather moved into the Ahtanum Valley from Wisconsin. He was a teacher at the Woodcock Academy of Higher Education in Ahtanum, Washington. He also started a farm here. My family has continued to farm up to the present day. Water has always been important to us, and so when the opportunity to be on the board of directors at Ahtanum Irrigation District came up about 25 years ago, I volunteered to run for the position and have been on the board ever since.
Joshua Dill: Would you please tell our readers about Ahtanum Irrigation District and its history?
Sam Hull: Ahtanum Irrigation District was formed in 1918. Before that, it was just private landowners who all had their own water rights. The earliest water right has a priority date of 1852. In 1918, those landowners got together and formed the district.
Joshua Dill: How many acres does your district service?
Sam Hull: We deliver water to approximately 5,300 acres. Our only storage is snowpack. We are not a Reclamation district.
Joshua Dill: What are the primary methods of irrigation in your district?
Sam Hull: Our delivery system is creek channels and open, unlined canals or ditches. We have three creeks, two of which act as diversion canals during the irrigation season, along with five small ditches. All our diversions from the main stream of Ahtanum Creek have fish screens. Everybody pumps from the canals or creeks, and the majority of our people irrigate with hand lines or wheel lines.
Joshua Dill: What other features does your district have?
Sam Hull: The district owns quite a bit of land up in the Ahtanum watershed. There are not many districts that have their own little watershed. We manage the land for grazing and for snowpack retention. The watershed is timberland, and it is in the 5,000–7,000- foot elevation range. That is some of the late snowpack. We have logged quite a bit of timber up in that area. Previously, we were on a sustainable harvest program with the timber, but now that the mills have left this area, it has become difficult for us to market it.
Joshua Dill: What are the most significant issues your district is facing?
Sam Hull: The most significant issue is that we have no storage. That means that when the snowpack in the Ahtanum watershed is gone, we are out of water. When that happens varies depending on how much moisture we get each winter. There have been a few years in which we have had very little water to divert even at the beginning of the season. Our season starts on April 15, and even on a good year, we have to shut off at midnight on July 10. That is by court mandate.
Joshua Dill: Are you developing plans to address that lack of storage?
Sam Hull: Yes. Ahtanum Irrigation District has been working on storage since the 1960s. After completing a Comprehensive Water Conservation Plan under Referendum 38, in the 1990s we came up with a great idea for an off-stream storage project. The idea was to build a reservoir, the Pine Hollow Reservoir, which would hold roughly 25,000 acre-feet. This would be off-stream storage: The water would go down a dry canyon. We could divert water in the late fall and early spring when the water flow is above its minimum and send it to the reservoir. That would allow us to use both natural runoff and storage for irrigation. The project would help three different irrigation districts: the John Cox Ditch Company, Ahtanum Irrigation District, and the Wapato Irrigation Project, which is on the Yakama Indian Reservation. It could also help out with flood control and fire protection. If we could keep Bachelor and Hatton Creeks primed, it would help keep the aquifer in the valley charged. Unfortunately, approximately 17 miles of Bachelor and Hatton Creeks, which provide habitat for fish and wildlife, are currently dry after July 10 each year by court mandate.
Joshua Dill: What are the main challenges that you are facing in bringing this reservoir project to fruition?
Sam Hull: There are multiple government bureaucracies involved, as well as politicians and landowners. To get everyone pulling in the same direction at the same time for a common cause has been extremely challenging. Still, we have been able to complete a constructability study, a watershed assessment, a watershed restoration program, a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS), a construction EIS, an economic analysis, and a reconnaissance-level engineering study for hydroelectric addition.
Joshua Dill: Is there a time frame for the reservoir project?
Sam Hull: That is pretty much open ended. When we started working on the storage project, we were hopeful that it would be completed by now, but unfortunately, that has not happened. Getting all the parties in agreement has been a major roadblock. When you have a project of this size that involves this many different entities, it takes a lot of time.
Joshua Dill: You mentioned that your season is restricted to a specific time of the year. Is that common for irrigation districts in your area?
Sam Hull: That is actually a unique feature of Ahtanum Irrigation District. Ever since people moved into the valley and started irrigating in the late 1800s, there has not been enough water for everyone. We have been through multiple court hearings and adjudications, and to make a long story short, the north-side water users ended up with 75 percent of the water out of the Ahtanum Creek until July 10, while the south-side water users, who are on the Yakama Indian Reservation under the Wapato Irrigation Project, get 25 percent. After July 10, the south side gets 100 percent of the water, less what is needed for fish. It may sound like the south-side users are getting a good deal, but by that time of year there is very little water anyway. Some years, they end up getting 100 percent of nothing. That ruling ended up not helping anyone. The only way this problem is going to be solved is to put in a reservoir.
Joshua Dill: Have there been any changes in your district in recent years in terms of land usage and urbanization?
Sam Hull: Yes. We are about 10 miles southwest of the city of Yakima, and there just like everywhere else, the population keeps expanding. People are moving farther and farther out into the country. There are lots of housing developments in this area now. I wouldn’t be able to guess what percentage of our district is urbanized, but I can tell you that it is growing.
Joshua Dill: What is your irrigation district’s vision for the future?
Sam Hull: Along with the reservoir, we would like to put in a pressurized water delivery system, but we can’t do that without the reservoir. That would make delivery for everyone significantly more efficient. There is a tremendous amount of loss through evaporation and ground seepage in these open canals.
Joshua Dill: What is your message to our readers?
Sam Hull: If you are in the irrigation business, water is important. It needs to be managed as well as possible. Being in a position where there is a lack of water, or even no water, is a real challenge for our district.