Tree Fruit: A Crucial Element of Washington’s Irrigated Agriculture

Barge traffic on the Columbia and Snake Rivers is a major route by which Washington State’s irrigated crops are shipped to the coast and around the world, and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA) is the trade association that brings together ports, businesses, public agencies, and individuals to support that traffic. In this month’s cover story, PNWA Executive Director Kristin Meira tells Irrigation Leader about the association’s work and its importance for irrigated ag farmers. 

This month, we also focus on the effects of two decades of drought on irrigators in the Rio Grande basin and the impressive efforts that irrigation district managers are carrying out to respond. According to General Manager Gary Esslinger, the 18-year drought that Elephant Butte Irrigation District is undergoing is now approaching the severity of the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s. The district, headquartered in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is fighting back with initiatives including conservation, piping, metering, and on-farm efficiencies. 

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is trying to balance fluctuating water supplies derived from snowpack and runoff with heavy delivery requirements dictated by the Rio Grande Compact and federal regulations. MRGCD CEO and Chief Engineer Mike Hamman tells us how the district is dealing with shortage and increasing efficiency. 

Rio Grande water is also diverted for agricultural purposes at the very end of its course, near the Gulf of Mexico. Sonia Lambert, the manager of Cameron County Irrigation District #2, tells us about how her district is dealing with water shortages through infrastructure upgrades and conservation initiatives, both in the district’s system and on water users’ farms. 

Robert Phillips, superintendent of the San Luis Valley Irrigation District in southern Colorado, tells us that his district’s diversions have decreased by a quarter since 2001. When the drought started, farmers in the valley quickly drained all its aquifers, but soon recognized the importance of conservation and reduced groundwater consumption, leading to the aquifers’ recovery. 

We also hear in this issue from Sam Barrick of SePRO, who tells us about his company’s chemical products for the irrigation market. 

Across this nation, from Puget Sound to the Gulf of Mexico, irrigated agriculture is a crucial part of our economy, and thanks to the efforts of irrigation water managers and professionals, it will stay that way in both fat years and lean years, years of plenty and years of drought. 

Kris Polly is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and the president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at