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Northwest Potato Growers Expect Dry Season

This year’s irrigation outlook for Northwest potato growers is dry, just like it’s been the past few years.

Idaho is in the seventh year of a drought cycle, and this year’s water supply is still uncertain, said Keith Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho.

“There will be water, but not as much as everybody would like,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have enough moisture to get us through.”

Some areas of the state are in better shape than others, and some isolated growers could end up short of water, but most potato growers should survive, Esplin said.

“In most cases, people can shuffle crops,” he said. “There’ll be a lot of potatoes planted with limited supplies of water.”

Most of the state’s potato growers farm in a crescent along the Snake River. Both surface water and groundwater is used to irrigate. Snow and rain have increased the last few weeks, improving growers’ chances to get through the year, Esplin said.

“Supplies will be tight, but I don’t see water being any more of an issue than it’s been the past few years,” he said. “It’s not like we don’t have anything.”

Drought also is affecting Colorado potato growers. The last six years have been severely dry, draining the Closed Basin Aquifer, which serves 90 percent of the state’s potato growers. However, a larger than normal snow pack this year should help turn the tide, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee.

Colorado’s roughly 200 potato growers farm 65,000 acres and produce 23 million to 27 million cwt. annually. There are two primary growing regions: the San Luis Valley in the south-central part of the state, where 90 percent of potato production occurs, and the area northeast of Denver, where 10 percent of production occurs, Voigt said.

The water supply will probably be short this year, but not nearly as short as it has been in the past. Growers on the edge of the valley will probably be the most affected, he said.

“For the last three years, we’ve cut back our acres by 15 percent, primarily because of the water shortage,” he said. “There’s been a tremendous effort to reduce all crops. We’ll probably have to reduce water usage by about an additional 15 percent.”

Tom Ford, chairman of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, farms potatoes and malt barley. The committee is trying to cut 10 percent of the potato acreage in the valley to conserve water, he said.

Keith Holland grows potatoes in the San Luis Valley. He said even though the snow pack is good this year, it will take a couple more years of good snow to recharge the depleted aquifer.

In Washington state, Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a statewide drought emergency March 10, based on precipitation levels that are at or near record lows and mountain snow pack averages that are about 25 percent of normal. Many rivers and creeks on both sides of the Cascades are flowing at or near record-low levels for this time of year, according to the governor’s office.

“While water shortages won’t affect all areas of the state in precisely the same way, it seems very likely that all areas of our state will experience at least some level of drought this year,” Gregoire said. “We need to start taking action now, and all of us need to be part of the solution.”

The governor’s emergency declaration gave the state Department of Ecology permission to use several tools to ease the economic and environmental hardships that are expected to come from the drought. These include emergency water permits, temporary transfers of water rights and funding from the state’s Drought Emergency Account, according to the governor’s office.

State agencies and growers will now have more flexibility when it comes to water use. Growers could get permission to pump more water from existing wells, could tap into emergency wells, or could drill new wells. Water could be purchased or leased from users willing to sell it. Under normal conditions, those things either couldn’t be done or would be difficult to do, said Rich Koenig, an Extension specialist with Washington State University (WSU).

Most irrigation issues will be worked out on a local level, depending on the water supplies available, Koenig said.

There’s still an opportunity for more moisture to fall. Local growers have been through droughts plenty of times, so they know what to expect, said Dana Faubion, a WSU Extension agent.

The region faced a similar predicament a few years ago. The 2001 drought turned out better than many predicted, but expectations for this year are even lower. Many growers were forced to choose which crops to irrigate and which to ignore four years ago, and might be forced to do so again. Economic considerations will decide where the water goes, said Jack Watson, Extension educator.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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