Tackling Wapato Irrigation Project’s Challenges: Stuart Crane of the Yakama Nation
Wapato Irrigation Project (WIP) was founded by the federal government in the early 20th century to irrigation the Yakama Nation reservation in central Washington State. Today, WIP diverts several hundred thousand acre-feet of water from the Yakima River and local creeks each year to service around 150,000 acres of irrigated agricultural land. While WIP is a federally owned project that is operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), some of the engineering and operating duties are handled by the Yakama Nation through the Yakama Tribal Engineering Program. This split between federal ownership and local service can sometimes lead to difficulties with efficient hiring, procurement, and maintenance. WIP’s infrastructure is also dated and in need of funding for maintenance and repairs.
In this interview, Stuart Crane, agricultural engineer at the Yakama Nation Water Resources Program, speaks withIrrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about the history of WIP and the current challenges it faces.
Stuart Crane: Currently, there is no internal storage on WIP. Some of the improvements that are being considered today involve reregulation reservoirs on the Wapato Satus Unit to better use flows. WIP’s Wapato Satus Unit, as I indicated earlier, was constructed by what I call brute force design: You divert as much water as you can at the front end and then use it over and over again on the project.That’s not currently an acceptable method for designing irrigation projects, although it was relatively efficient when this project was built in the early 1900s. Today, as on-farm irrigation techniques have become more efficient, the quantity of return flows has decreased. That has been a big problem for the parts of the Wapato Satus Unit that depend on return flows. Fixing this problem will require changing and upgrading the delivery system infrastructure in these areas.
Kris Polly: What are the primary crops on the project?
Stuart Crane: WIP is one of the most diverse projects in the United States when it comes to what crops are grown. There is a wide variety of annuals and perennials. Certainly, the biggest dollar crop is apples. Historically, the most common varieties have been Golden and Red Delicious, but that has diversified over time to include the varieties that are more popular today. There are many stone fruits, including peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and cherries. Alfalfa, corn, and wheat are grown in large quantities. The up-and-coming crop onthereservationishops,whichisbeinggrownonanever- increasing acreage. We also have Concord grapes, mint, and a wide variety of vegetables, which are sold either in fresh fruit markets or are packed for storage and export.
Kris Polly: What are the main challenges facing the project?Stuart Crane: One is the workforce issue we previously discussed. The BIA is unable to perform all the administrative and operational tasks that are necessary to
run WIP as a business. The irrigation system infrastructure has deteriorated significantly; maintenance has not been performed as it should have been over the last hundred years. Most of the water control and delivery structures have lasted way past their design life expectancy. They all need to be upgraded or replaced.
Another challenge is that, WIP being a federal project, such duties as payroll, hiring and firing, and procurement are all done elsewhere, not locally. It has been hard to get employees hired and paid due to federal hiring freezes and shutdowns. WIP is self funded and is entirely financed through user irrigation assessments that are collected by the BIA and returned to WIP as federal funds. At the end of the federal fiscal year in September, access to these funds is problematic and can delay planned off-season construction and maintenance projects.
There are also issues caused by the lack of flow measurements at key sites in the WIP conveyance system and at field delivery turnouts.That’s something we’re working on. It’s a real challenge to run the project without having good flow measurement information. To conserve water, WIP is moving forward with the goal of charging farmers on a quantity-delivered basis rather than on the current acreage basis, so all turnouts will need to be measured.
A further challenge facing WIP is reliable and equitable water deliveries to all users. WIP’s diversion from the Yakima River consists of approximately 40 percent senior-right water and 60 percent junior-right water. When there is a drought, WIP receives all its senior water, but the junior water is prorated according to the severity of the drought. Under drought conditions, WIP has difficulty making deliveries to its users, especially to tail-enders on laterals and to the areas of the Wapato Satus Unit that rely on return flows. In bad droughts, some water users don’t get any water at all. The Yakama Nation is trying to address these drought-related problems through its participation in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan process and the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Program.
Kris Polly: What is your plan to address some of these things? Do you have an infrastructure improvement plan?Stuart Crane: We’ve actually developed many plans regarding irrigation water enhancement in the Yakima basin. In 1994, the Yakama Nation Water Resources Program developed a conservation plan for WIP which included infrastructure improvements and increased flow measurement and monitoring. Since that time, the BIA
has done what it calls condition assessments on all Indian irrigation projects in the United States, which it was requested to perform by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO reports indicated that most of the Indian irrigation projects in the United States were not in good operating condition. The condition assessments, which were completed in 2013, estimated that rehabilitating the Indian projects as they were designed and constructed would require more than $300 million. Since the time when these Indian irrigation projects were originally built in the early 1900s, irrigation practices and delivery technology have significantly improved.
The BIA is currently completing modernization and updated conservation plans for WIP to determine the most cost-effective and efficient way to rehabilitate the project. The goal of the modernization plan is to develop the best options
for rebuilding WIP’s infrastructure to meet the current needs of all water users. Incorporation of reregulating reservoirs and canal lining and piping are two main ways to enable better irrigation water management. The main objectives of infrastructure improvements are reducing spills, decreasing seepage loss, and enabling equitable delivery to all users.
Kris Polly: What is your message to Congress?
Stuart Crane: This is a more difficult question that I will preface by saying that the opinions I give here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of the Yakama Nation or of tribal leadership. Federal employment and procurement procedures do not work efficiently at the local level for irrigation districts. This situation has been exacerbated over the last 10–15 years by national security procedures. You can’t run an irrigation project when it takes 2 years to hire a ditch rider or laborer. That’s the predicament WIP is in. You have to use the federal system for hiring all new employees. Irrigation districts that don’t have this constraint are much more successful. I think local management and control is needed to operate WIP more efficiently and effectively. That could take many forms. I believe the BIA is currently looking into that issue. A local board of control would be able to better address problems on the project in a timely manner.
Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act in 2016. A section of this act addresses the deferred maintenance problems and needs
on Indian irrigation projects. The WIIN Act authorized dollars to address the problems, but unfortunately no dollars were appropriated. If Congress is going to authorize needed infrastructure improvement projects, it should appropriate the funds required to actually do these improvement projects. WIP alone needs more than $200 million to address deferred maintenance and other project deficiencies. I believe there is a 5-year sunset provision on that authorization, so if the funding is never appropriated, it will just disappear.
Kris Polly: What is the relation between WIP and the tribal government?
Stuart Crane: WIP was authorized by Congress and built by the Federal Indian Irrigation Service. Today it is federally owned and operated by the BIA. WIP was constructed on the Yakama Reservation in the early 1900s in an attempt to change tribal members’ traditional lifestyle to one more similar to that of the white farming settlers in the area. When WIP was constructed, the Dawes Act of 1887 allowed the federal government to assign allotments of tribal reservation land within the proposed project, generally 80–160 acres in size, to individual tribal members. During the early years of WIP development and construction, nontribal individuals bought a significant portion of the tribal members’ allotments. At present, about 40 percent of the assessed irrigated acres on WIP are in fee status, which means they are in private ownership. The remaining 60 percent of the acreage is owned by either the Yakama Nation or tribal members. A majority of these tribal and allotted lands are currently leased to nontribal members to farm.
The Yakama Nation’s input on WIP’s operations occurs through the Yakama Tribal Council’s Roads, Irrigation, and Land (RIL) Committee. The committee doesn’t tell the BIA what to do, but it provides information on tribal irrigation issues. If there are irrigation-related problems identified by the Yakama Tribal Council, the chain of communication goes through the RIL Committee to the BIA. There is also a nontribal irrigation entity representing all the owners of fee-status lands in the Wapato Satus Unit of the WIP called the Yakima Reservation Irrigation District (YRID), which is a Washington State–chartered irrigation district. It owns no irrigation facilities, but as an irrigation district, it assesses all the fee lands in the Wapato Satus Unit. The YRID board provides input to the BIA on irrigation-related needs and problems as well.
Kris Polly: What are the prospects for increasing local control over WIP?
Stuart Crane: Under the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (Public Law 93-638), the tribe has the ability to contract and perform functions that the BIA has historically performed on the reservation. The tribe has contracted and is currently performing the engineering functions for WIP because the BIA doesn’t have the capability to perform engineering tasks on its irrigation projects anymore. Under this PL 93-638 contract, the Yakama Tribal Engineering Program is developing the designs, implementing improvements, and rebuilding structures with grant funding that it is currently receiving from WIP assessments and through its participation in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan process and the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Program. This contract is functioning well and has expedited the construction of several million dollars’ worth of WIP infrastructure improvements over the last 12 or 13 years. The Yakama Nation doesn’t want to contract the entire operation of WIP at this time due to problems currently facing WIP. The tribe is comfortable, however, handling the engineering duties, and is also considering taking over the hydrography and water measurement needs on WIP.
Stuart Crane is the agricultural engineer at the Yakama Nation Water Resources Program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (509) 949-4327.