Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Mark Wagoner: Overcoming Challenges in Gardena Farms Irrigation District

The Gardena Farms Irrigation District (GFID) is one of the oldest irrigation districts in Washington State, and one that faces particular challenges. A 1936 U.S. Supreme Court decision allows Oregon water users to use as much water from the Walla Walla River as they want, leaving little for irrigators north of the border. This problem is compounded by aged infrastructure, a lack of storage, and a complicated patchwork of property rights adjoining its ditches. Nevertheless, GFID farmers have adapted to these strained circumstances by making use of groundwater and finding crops like alfalfa seed, alfalfa hay, and wheat that can be grown without summer water supplies.

In this interview, Walla Walla–area farmer and GFID Board Member Mark Wagoner tells Irrigation Leader about how the district has dealt with its unusual set of circumstances.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Mark Wagoner: I was born in Walla Walla and grew up on a farm outside Touchet, Washington, that lies in the GFID. I’ve lived here my whole life except for the 4 years I spent at Washington State University (WSU). I was appointed to the GFID board of directors in 2001, and I’ve been on it since then. It’s been fun.

Irrigation Leader: What kind of farm do you have?

Mark Wagoner: Farmers in Gardena are limited in the crops we can grow because don’t have much water 

in the summertime, but my grandpa, my dad, and our neighbors figured out that we could grow alfalfa here pretty successfully. In the 1950s, they figured out how to grow alfalfa seed really well. That was possible partly because researchers at WSU found out that this region has native alkali bees that live in the ground and pollinate alfalfa, which is something that honeybees don’t do. The fact that alfalfa can be watered in the fall and the spring meant that we didn’t need water in the summertime. My grandpa grew mostly hay and a little bit of seed and also had dairy cows, beef cows, and pigs. My dad also grew hay and a little bit of alfalfa seed, but when the alkali bees were discovered, we started getting really good yields on alfalfa seed, and he switched to all alfalfa seed. I grow all alfalfa seed and use wheat as a rotation crop.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about GFID.

Mark Wagoner: Every time we have somebody of importance come by here for a tour, we start out by saying that we are one of the oldest irrigation districts in the state, and we’re probably the poorest because of our lack of water. The precursor of GFID was started in 1892 when a man named Frank Boyer got the water right. Frank Boyer was the son of John Boyer, who along with Dorsey Baker in 1869 had started the oldest bank in the state, the Baker Boyer Bank in Walla Walla. Frank Boyer got the idea to irrigate the Gardena Bench area above the Walla Walla River. It’s about 5,000 acres of fairly flat, really fertile ground that was deposited by the ice-age Missoula floods about 10,000–13,000 years ago. He had the dream of digging an irrigation canal and using gravity to water the whole thing. Along with some partners, he founded the Walla Walla Irrigation Company, which started the Gardena project. They started digging in 1893—completely privately funded, by the way—but went broke in a financial crisis. Then they got a man named E.C. Burlingame, who had been building irrigation districts in California, to come up here and manage the construction. It was a complex project for the time and had

GFID infrastructure delivers water.

to be built with horses and hand labor. They built 11 miles of canal basically on top of a hill and then had to build a siphon. They built a 7,800-foot-long, 42-inch-diameter siphon on top of the ground out of treated wooden two-by-sixes. It went down in the Pine Creek Valley and up into Gardena. It started delivering water to Gardena in 1905, allowing farmers to open new tracts of ground. My grandpa got started farming here in 1920, breaking out some ground from sagebrush. Eventually, in 1928, the Walla Walla Irrigation Company became the Gardena Farms Irrigation District, a public entity organized under state law. Today, there are 7,000 acres of irrigated ground in our district, including 5,500 up on the Gardena Bench, where I live, and another 1,500 on the upper ditch on the other side of that siphon. 

There was a lot of water up until about 1920. At that point, Oregon started developing some water, and because the Walla Walla River comes across the state line from the Blue Mountains of Oregon, Oregon’s usage dried up Gardena. We stopped having any water after around July 1. The State of Washington sued Oregon, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1936. The Supreme Court said that since the water starts in Oregon, Oregon could take all it wanted. That meant that practically no water came across the state line in the summer; the only water we got was what came down Mill Creek and was diverted into Yellowhawk Creek. Even today, we typically have to shut our canal off around July 1 and don’t get any more water until October 1. In the fall, we water this ground so that we can plow it, turn the alfalfa upside down, and plant a wheat crop. We typically give the alfalfa about 12 inches of water in the fall and then start giving it water in March and April.

Irrigation Leader: Does that legal decision from 1936 still hold?

Mark Wagoner: Yes. Also, in 1999–2000 we got written notification from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that we were in violation of the Endangered Species Act with regard to steelhead and bull trout. Water diverters in Oregon were in trouble because they were literally drying the river up, and we were in trouble because we were the largest diverter of water in the Walla Walla basin. We avoided the NMFS’s threat to shut us off completely by agreeing to bypass the water. The Oregon water users said that they would bypass 25 cubic feet per second (cfs), and we said we’d bypass 18 cfs. That has killed the month of June for us and hurt us in the fall. In addition to letting the water in the river flow by, we lose about 15 cfs of the water we divert in our upper ditch to evaporation and infiltration. Now we don’t get our fall water done until December, which means we can’t start plowing or spray herbicides on the alfalfa until late in the year, and if winter comes early, then we’re really behind. That settlement agreement with the federal agencies has been difficult.

Last year, we had great snowpack in the Blue Mountains, but it all left on April 10 and literally flooded one of my fields where the Touchet River meets the Walla Walla. There were about 10,000 cfs in the river. With all the snow melted, we were out of water by June 20. That’s what I mean when I say that we’re the poorest irrigation district in the state of Washington.

The whole Walla Walla Valley is short of water. The only people who get year-round, melt-free water are the users of the oldest irrigation district, the Walla Walla River Irrigation District. They grow fruit trees and wine grapes. The other irrigation districts in Oregon are like us—they dry up and basically just grow wheat, alfalfa, and pasture. They don’t have any big, permanent crops that make a lot of money. 

Another weird thing about our district is that because it is laid out to work exclusively by gravity, our fields aren’t square. We’ve got all these weirdly shaped little fields. I must have 10 farms here and there, ranging from 24 to 300 acres in size. Some of them have little wells that put out 300 gallons a minute; one 200-acre farm has a well that puts out about 100 gallons a minute. We’ve got a hodgepodge of different situations, which makes farming hard.

Water flows through GFID’s system.

Irrigation Leader: How many users does the district have?

Mark Wagoner: I think we have 65 users. A lot of people have small fields of less than 10 acres by their houses, but I farm about 2,400 acres, 2,000 of them watered with district water. There are 5 or 6 big farms in the district.

Irrigation Leader: Are those farms also growing alfalfa seed and wheat?

Mark Wagoner: They grow alfalfa hay, alfalfa seed, wheat, and a little bit of Walla Walla sweet onions. In years like this one, the alfalfa seed market is terrible, so I’ve got about 200 acres of sweet peas that I’m growing as a rotation crop. It’s hard to grow really good alfalfa hay when your water shuts off—you only get about three good cuts. That puts us at a competitive disadvantage to growers in the Columbia Basin Project. If you grow sweet onions, you need to pump water out of a well in September to seed them and get them growing. A lot of people have shallow aquifer wells—I have six—but they don’t put out much water. Some pump 100 gallons a minute; some pump 500. Our water supply is really limited in the summer, and consequently so is the amount we can grow.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your improvements to the district’s infrastructure.

Mark Wagoner: We started doing a bunch of piping projects in 2007. The Walla Walla Conservation District really stepped up to the plate and started going after funding from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology). We started in December 2009, and in early 2010, we finished piping our south lateral, which is 5½ miles long. That completely replaced a bunch of ditches. In summer 2012, we piped a 2,800-foot section of our upper canal with 66-inch pipe and put in a big weed screen. We have an overflow diversion that goes into the Little Grand Canyon and ends up in Pine Creek. In winter 2012–13, we piped the North Ditch, which was a huge project. We had to tie into our existing siphon, which was built in 1957. The total cost of all that piping so far has been about $8.5 million. It’s really helped our farming and water deliveries. We’ve saved about 11 cfs of water, which we have put in a trust to help the fish.

Our upper ditch is an unusual engineering feat. It is 11 miles long and meanders around through a bunch of land that doesn’t have water rights to it. The first 3 miles are built on cobble rock, so we lose a lot of water there; then it snakes across hills and leaks at least 15 cfs before arriving at our screen facility. 

In addition to eliminating those losses, piping the upper ditch would reduce maintenance. The ditch crosses grounds with no rights to it, and the neighbors don’t like when we drive on their property to treat the weeds in the ditch. The different kinds of land ownership up there are confusing. The ditch was not a government project, and the Walla Walla Irrigation Company, the private company that built it, got easements and rights of way, but with varying widths. Sometimes the easement is just for the ditch and doesn’t 

include access. In some places, there are trees growing over it that the neighbors won’t let us cut down. Even piping the thing would be a nightmare because we’d have to get permission from everyone. It’s very different from the situation in the Columbia Basin Project, where they’ve got roads by the canals and easy access. 

We wanted to pipe this ditch, and the Walla Walla Conservation District started amassing the money to do so from BPA, Ecology, and the Bureau of Reclamation. It was going to start in 2015, but the objections of the Umatilla Tribes stopped it. We were disappointed, because if we had been able to pipe the whole system, we could have saved around 25 cfs of water. The tribes are trying to get spring Chinook salmon back in the Walla Walla River, particularly in May and June, which is when the water levels get low. The Chinook haven’t been in the Walla Walla since 1932.

I think they didn’t want the project to proceed because they want to have a big project to bring a lot of water back into the valley. We’ve been doing all these little projects—piping, fish screens, meters, tree planting—but they want to do a huge project to put a lot of water back and don’t want to do anything until we get that funded. For now, we’re in limbo. If we don’t get the big project funded, there is the chance that the tribes could take legal measures to ensure that there is sufficient flow in the river for the fish. That would most likely put us out of business.

Irrigation Leader: Do you have any storage facilities in your district? 

Josh Gerking, Mark Wagoner, and A.J. Oakes with GFID infrastructure.

Mark Wagoner: There is no storage anywhere in the Walla Walla basin, which is a big problem. The tallest peak in the Blue Mountains is about 6,000 feet tall, so you can have a lot of snow up there, but a lot of it melts early or causes floods. On February 7, we had a huge flood with about 25,000 cfs coming down the river. It silted in our whole diversion dam, our canal, and all our fish screens. All the electrical motors that were running the screens got ruined, as well as the generators and backup generators. Our guys, A.J. Oakes and Josh Gerking, had to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week, to get our diversion facility back up and running. They deserve a lot of credit for what they did—we’re really lucky to have them.

Irrigation Leader: How does the district raise money? Does it charge a fee for its water or does it have tax authority?

Mark Wagoner: We’re a taxing district. In Walla Walla County, part of your property taxes goes to irrigation. Our assessment was $35 an acre from 2002 up until this year, but since all our costs kept going up, we raised our assessment this year to $40. Then we tacked on a $5-an-acre fee because we’re going to have to replace the siphon that goes under Pine Creek. The original wooden siphon lasted 52 years and was replaced in 1957 with a 42-inch steel siphon that’s got concrete on each side. We’re worried that that thing is going to blow up on us because there’s about 100 pounds of pressure at the bottom of it. We spent about $30,000 on engineering studies regarding a replacement, and I think it’s going to cost about $2 million. That’s a steep price, but we might just have to bite the bullet and pay it. We’ll try to gather the money over a couple of years through extra assessments, grants, and a bond issue.

Irrigation Leader: Have you successfully applied for grants in the past?

Mark Wagoner: Yes, we’ve got grants from Ecology, the BPA, and Reclamation. It’s going to be hard to get grants for our siphon, because we’re not going to be saving any water. We might be able to get a low-interest loan from a government agency or an infrastructure grant from the infrastructure bill that is being contemplated.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your vision for the future of the district?

Mark Wagoner: I would really like to pipe our upper ditch—that would help us so much. The other thing we’re working on is a partnership with Ecology studying options to put water back into the rivers. Probably the best thing for our district would be a pipeline from the Columbia River. That way, when the flow of the Walla Walla River goes below a certain level—150 cfs, say—we would start pumping water from the Columbia and leave the water in the Walla Walla for the fish. That would make the Umatilla Tribes happy and might even revive some of the local springs and provide a bit more river in the fall. If we could start irrigating a bit earlier in the fall, that would be nice. We don’t need to start growing potatoes, papayas, and pineapples. We’ve figured out how to grow alfalfa really well. I’ve got my son farming with me, and he’s got two little boys. All they want to do is play tractors and go on tractor rides with grandpa. Those kids are going to be farmers. I’d like to pass our farm down to my son and then to his sons. 

Mark Wagoner is a farmer and a member of the board of directors of the Gardena Farms Irrigation District. He can be contacted at markswagoner@gmail.com.