Septermber 6, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Irrigators uneasy as Wickiup Reservoir dwindles

Sep 07, 2010

Septermber 6, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Irrigators uneasy as Wickiup Reservoir dwindles

Irrigators uneasy as Wickiup Reservoir dwindles

Small snowpack means water availability for summer is in question

By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
Published: September 06. 2010 4:00AM PST

With Wickiup Reservoir less than a quarter full, irrigation managers in Central Oregon are concerned about what effect that might have on next summer’s water availability for some farmers and ranchers.

“We’re at lower levels than we’ve seen in a few years at Wickiup,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The reservoir was at 41,000 acre-feet as of Friday; a year ago it was at almost 80,000 acre-feet.

A smaller-than-normal snowpack last winter led to lower natural stream flows in the Deschutes, Gorman said. Although a wet spring helped out irrigators, in the end the North Unit Irrigation District had to get all of its water from Wickiup Reservoir, drawing it down to 21 percent full as of Friday.

“The natural flows we typically see in the Deschutes River weren’t there this year,” said Mike Britton, North Unit district manager. “We had to rely on storage from Wickiup more than we normally have to.”

Earlier this summer, the natural river flow was about 15 percent less than average, said Steve Johnson, Central Oregon Irrigation District manager.

Irrigators didn’t have to cut back on their water use this year, Britton said, since there was enough in the reservoir, and the rainy start to the season delayed the need.

“For us, we had a decent water year this year,” Britton said. “But it’s next year that really has people somewhat concerned at this point ... It all boils down to what kind of winter weather we get.”

If it’s a wet and cold winter, and the snowpack builds up and plenty of water flows into the reservoir, then it could fill up again. But if it’s a dry winter, it could be harder to replenish.

Because of that, water managers are planning to save all the water they can in the reservoir this fall and winter, and not let more than the minimum amount required — 20 cubic feet per second — flow down the Deschutes River, until they can be more certain that Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs will fill. Last year, the amount released from Wickiup was typically about 100 cubic feet per second.

“It’s going to start out at the minimum, and will likely stay that way through the majority of the winter, regardless of the type of winter,” Gorman said.

And the water level in stretches of the Upper Deschutes could start to go down soon, he said, as irrigators start using less and less water with the end of the growing season.

The lower levels shouldn’t be too noticeable in the Deschutes River by the time it gets to Bend, said Steve Johnson, with the Central Oregon Irrigation District, although Mirror Pond might seem lower — which is typical for the winter.

Johnson added that the La Niña weather pattern projected for this winter could bring lots of precipitation and snow in the mountains.

That’s “good for water people,” he said.

Klamath was unlucky

While Central Oregon ranchers and farmers got their allotted water this year, their neighbors to the south, in the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project, were not as lucky.

Last week, Belinda Stewart, outreach coordinator with the Klamath Water Users Association, went out and saw farms with dry fields empty of crops and irrigation wheel lines sitting idle.

“It’s a different landscape there right now,” she said.

Water managers released about 50 percent of the average irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake, said Kevin Moore, spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. At the beginning of the irrigation season, the lake was at its lowest level on record, he said.

For farmer Steve Kandra, that means he’s had to let 20 percent of his farm idle, and use well water — which costs more — to irrigate the other 80 percent.

“It’s better than we expected, but it’s not normal,” he said. “There’s some operators that they have nothing, and there’s some operators that have 70 or 80 percent. It depends on where you’re at.”

The situation is better than in 2001, he said, when farmers protested the federal government shutting off irrigation water to release more water for fish, drawing national attention to the basin. But the farmers are still hurting, he said. He has had to draw on financial reserves to get through the summer, and once those are gone, he doesn’t know what will happen in the next year.

Water table dropped

Some of the groundwater well pumping, which was approved under certain conditions, had to be stopped during the season, Gorman said. In some places, pumping for irrigation water caused the water table to drop 20 to 40 places, prompting a couple of dozen complaints from people about their domestic wells going dry.

“In most cases, the residents need to either deepen their well or lower their pump,” Gorman said.

But the irrigation season in the Klamath Basin is now winding down, just like in the Deschutes Basin, he said.

And additional help could be on the way for Klamath Basin farmers — while about 157 farmers were paid an average of $180 an acre to idle some of their land earlier this summer, more could get assistance in the coming weeks through supplemental federal funds, said Tara Campbell-Miranda, with the Klamath Water and Power Agency.

“We’re trying to get some aid for some people who haven’t irrigated at all, or didn’t receive water until the middle of the season,” she said.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at kramsayer@bendbulletin.com.

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010
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