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Water for Washington Vineyards

River diversion for Red Mountain irrigation will preserve groundwater and habitat, save costs

by Peter Mitham
Hedges Estate Vineyard
Hedges Estate is one of many vineyards in Washington's Red Mountain AVA that will benefit from the newly approved water plan.
Benton City, Wash. -- A water agency approved a $12.5 million irrigation project that will feed water from the Yakima River to the prominent Red Mountain AVA and wean local grapegrowers from the groundwater that currently irrigates area vineyards.

Scott Revell, planning manager with the Kennewick Irrigation District, said the new system will pipe water to Red Mountain from a pumping station at Kiona, about 20 miles downstream from the current extraction point at Prosser.

“It will leave about 20,000 acre-feet in the 14-mile critical stretch below Prosser dam in the (Yakima) River,” Revell told Wines & Vines.

The system will deliver water to Red Mountain via a pressurized and metered pipe system, rather than through the traditional irrigation canals. The system is designed to provide 1.5 acre-feet annually to as many as 1,785 acres of vineyard, far more than the 400 acres that rely on groundwater today. Water could be flowing by late 2012, providing the necessary development permits come through in a timely manner.

All told, the Red Mountain AVA has 4,040 acres producing grapes integral to some of the state’s best red wines. The rapid pace of development has not only boosted the thirst for a consistent supply of water, but it has eroded the local desert habitat known as shrub steppe.

Revell said the agreement allowing for the new infrastructure will see growers contribute $500,000 toward restoration of habitat lost to development. The Washington State Department of Ecology also will contribute $500,000 toward habitat preservation.

Keeping pace with development

The project is a major step in a region where water infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with growth. The original irrigation infrastructure dates to 1917, and the last major development in the district’s irrigation system occurred in the 1950s. But there’s been phenomenal growth since then, which has exhausted surface water rights.

The last grant took place in the late 1980s, said Christophe Hedges of Hedges Family Estate. “There are no more water rights available for our AVA,” he told Wines & Vines.

This has resulted in growers spreading the existing rights. Groundwater, regardless of the place of extraction, was allowed as long as the volume didn’t exceed the limits of the original water rights. The new infrastructure will change that, permitting more vineyard development and a consistent water supply to both existing and new vineyards.

“(It) will allow the entire growing region, including some areas outlying of the AVA, to access water,” Hedges said.

The new system also stands to cost growers less than wells. Property owners have banded together to form the Red Mountain South Land Improvement District. An annual assessment of $728.02 per irrigated acre will see growers repay the cost of the $12.5 million project during the next 25 years. The district includes 105 parcels, some with the same owner. The landholders will pay the annual per-acre assessment according to acreage held.

While the amount sounds hefty, Hedges expects the cost of the new irrigation system will work out to slightly less than running a well once development, maintenance and operating costs are factored in.

The new infrastructure is also a step towards the realization of the Red Mountain master plan released in 2007. The plan identified areas for future vineyard development, as well as supplementary development such as a wine village and other ventures.

“Now that we have the water problem solved, we can move forward with the other parts of the plan, which would include how things are going to be developed, drainage, run-off issues, the supplementary (agritourism) uses,” Hedges said. “It helps put that master plan into reality.”

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