This article was published on: 04/13/23 1:56 PM
By Ben Kittell
With “sprinter” dragging on and the mountains covered deeply in snow, drought seems to be loosening its dusty grip on the West. Yet as irrigation season begins to ramp up in Central Oregon, many farmers are keeping a close eye on reservoir levels and annual precipitation.
With the current Cascade snowpack towering at 174% of average, and seemingly endless rounds of spring snow adding to the total, the Deschutes River Basin is receiving some much-needed relief from the years long drought cycle we have been in. While the large snowpack is certainly good news, the basin remains below the average amount of precipitation (93%) that typically falls in a year. So, we may have had a snowy winter, but we need these weather patterns to continue bringing moisture to the area to continue the trend away from extreme drought.
As spring gets into full swing (trust us, it will!) we hope to see reservoirs begin to recover from current historic lows. Irrigators will be keeping a close eye on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Hydromet1 (local reservoir levels) in hopes of meeting their allotted water for the year and boosting reserves for future years. Farmers in the North Irrigation District (around Madras) are scheduled to receive significantly more water than last year (.7 acre-ft in 2023 vs .45 acre-ft. in 2022), however these junior water rights holders are still forced to adjust their business practices to use less water than the 2 acre-ft. they receive in non-drought years.
For river enthusiasts, flow gauges2 are sure to jump high this spring, how much will depend heavily on the weather of the next month. Warm temperatures and rain on top of the existing snow could result in large flows, especially on smaller creeks like Whychus Creek and Tumalo Creek. While thrilling for the whitewater boaters of our community, water managers like Deschutes Bain Watermaster Jeremy Griffin are hoping for cooler temperatures resulting in slower melt.
“We have always said nice and slow is the best” Griffin said in an email with the DRC. “But the thought last year  was that the melt off happened so slow it actually seeped into the groundwater system instead of running off.”
Because of the Deschutes Basin’s unique geology3, it is easier for precipitation and snowmelt to infiltrate into the ground especially when soils are extra dry from years of below average precipitation. This helps recharge important groundwater supplies but can lead to lower natural stream flows and less water captured in reservoirs.
We are on the path of recovery, but we still have a long way to go till we are fully out of the drought cycle. Griffin thinks, “we need another 2 years of above average snowpack and or precipitation to get us out of the drought and have the spring discharges return to ‘normal’”. Though after watching the weather patterns in California this past winter, we have seen how rapidly these cycles can swing.
So, the next time you are scraping the snow off your car in April, you can do so with a smile knowing it is for the good of the river we love and the community we call home.
Interested in more hard data? Check out the websites below for a wealth of information.
- This map shows all the reservoirs current levels in the Deschutes Basin. Info from the Bureau of Reclamation: https://www.usbr.gov/pn/hydromet/destea.html
- Statewide stream flows can be accessed here. Select “Deschutes” under “Basin” tab for local flows in Central Oregon. Info from Oregon Water Resources Department: https://apps.wrd.state.or.us/apps/sw/hydro_near_real_time/
- Check out our seminar on “Ground Water in Central Oregon” for lots of good information on our unique geology and what it means for our streams. https://www.deschutesriver.org/news-and-resources/raise-the-deschutes-seminar-videos/
Photo: Matthew Kritzer, Bureau of Reclamation Hydrologist (27 March 2023)
About the Author
Ben Kittell is the Development and Communications Intern at the Deschutes River Conservancy. Ben has an educational background in Environmental Communications from Colorado State University. For the past decade, he has shared his passion and enthusiasm for Central Oregon’s rivers as a fly fishing guide. Ben strives to continue to foster positive relationships with water and our community through work in the conservation field.