Ray Kopacz shouted over the rumbling of the cement truck one recent morning as workers patched up a break in the Stanfield Branch Furnish Ditch that cost farmers a full day's worth of irrigation water.
The Stanfield Irrigation District had just started pulling water from the Umatilla River on March 31 and already they were faced with an emergency repair. Fortunately, Kopacz said they were able to catch the leak before it caused serious damage and the system was turned back.
"It's getting to be that time of year everybody wants water," said Kopacz, SID manager. "Water is like gold. If you don't have it, this ground is worthless."
Irrigation season is underway across the Umatilla Basin, and most districts are feeling better than they did during last year's brutal, drought-stricken summer. Local snowpack is close to average, and so long as it doesn't melt too quickly, farms should be able to make their stored water last longer into the season.
Right now, Kopacz said growers are focused on watering their wheat and cattle pastures, while getting a head start on vegetables like potatoes and onions. Corn should be planted in the next week or so, he said.
The SID covers about 10,800 acres of high-value farmland. It is something of a special case, since the district has 34,700 acre-feet of water guaranteed through the Umatilla Basin Project — an acre-foot being the amount of water it takes to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water.
Once the Umatilla River drops below a certain point, the district switches over to pumping irrigation water from the Columbia River. In exchange, the SID leaves its water right from McKay Reservoir in stream to protect native salmon and steelhead runs during periods of low flow. Kopacz said the program, which was passed by Congress in 1988, has been valuable not only to protect fish, but it has also removed a lot of the guesswork for irrigators.
"Before we had the exchange, growers had to ask whether McKay was going to fill or not," Kopacz said. "Now, they already know we're going to have water for next year."
Not everyone has that luxury. The Westland Irrigation District, which has about 14,750 acres within its boundaries, isn't on the exchange and still depends entirely on Mother Nature for their water supply. Once it runs out, they're forced to shut off.
District Manager Mike Wick said this year looks much better than last, with the basin's snowpack at 98 percent as of Thursday. Mountain snow is critical because it acts as a natural storage system for water, gradually replenishing streams and rivers into the summer. The longer they can pull live flows from the Umatilla River, the longer McKay Reservoir has to fill and the later into the season they can irrigate, Wick said.
"At this point, we should have an average to maybe above-average year," he said. "If we run to the end of September, that's a pretty good year."
Last year, Westland was forced to shut off its irrigation by mid-August. The district began irrigating this year in early March, and as of Friday, McKay was 86 percent full. Wick said he'd be disappointed if the reservoir doesn't fill, but he has learned not to try and predict the weather.
District Watermaster Greg Silbernagel said April and May rainfall will go a long way toward determining how the rest of the water year goes. The state allows irrigation on most of the Umatilla River from March through October, though Silbernagel's office must continue to meet target flows for fish. The cutoff point for SID on the exchange program is 250 cubic feet per second.
The Hermiston and West Extension irrigation districts are also part of the Columbia exchange program, with HID using its flows out of the Umatilla River to store at Cold Springs Reservoir. The 9,600 acre district is then eligible for credits to draw out of the Columbia, if necessary.
HID Manager Annette Kirkpatrick said Cold Springs is about 70 percent full, which combined with the district's exchange credits should bring them close to a full water year. Irrigation out of the reservoir started Thursday morning.
"This year is going to be better than last year," Kirkpatrick said. "We're not filled to capacity, but this year is definitely looking like an improvement."
Beverly Bridgewater, manager of the West Extension Irrigation District, said they began diverting their irrigation water March 18. She agreed last year was difficult, but said the one positive was it got farmers thinking more about conservation.
"I think we're going to have a really good season, because we're all experienced paying attention to our water," Bridgewater said.