Madras Pioneer - Drought relief pays the water bill for Jefferson County irrigators

This article was published on: 03/9/22 10:58 AM

By Pat Kruis

This month, patrons of the North Unit Irrigation District will find a credit in their water bill. The drought relief package Oregon legislators passed in December includes $5.5 million to compensate NUID farmers and ranchers for water shortages due to extreme drought and environmental obligations.

“Whatever you paid last year gets applied to this year as a credit,” said NUID General Manager Josh Bailey.

“We’d rather have the water than the money,” said grass farmer Vern Bare. Bare says based on his acreage he pays about $100,000 a year no matter how much water he gets. Last year he got about a third of the water he normally gets. This year is shaping up even worse. Farmers may get about a quarter of their usual allotment. “It’s hard to pay when you’re not growing any crops.”

Bare planted some winter wheat in the fall but doesn’t plan to plant anything this summer. “It’s going to be ugly out there.”

Last year, patrons spent $4.75 million for irrigation. The drought relief compensates irrigators to the tune of $5.5 million.

“From a grower’s perspective, this drought was terrible,” said Bailey. “For NUID and key county leaders to be able to acquire those funds to offset those costs, that’s huge.”

Some farmers don’t plan to plant their fields this year, so don’t expect to use irrigation.

“The board made it clear, because everyone has different circumstances, the board will take those on a case-by-case basis,” said Bailey.

The drought relief package addresses the issue with a $3-million grant for soil conservation specifically for Jefferson County.

A local advisory committee with the Soil and Water Conservation District advises the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board on how to issue the money.

“It’s frustrating. We have to have the money spent by the end of June 2023,” says Staci Merkt, district manager for the SWCD. “We don’t want to leave any of this money hanging out there.”

Grant managers can use the money to pay for conservation efforts retroactively starting July 1, 2021 and going forward to June 30, 2023.

Merkt feels pressure to get the money moving. “I’m trying to explain this should not act like a typical grant program that requires a lengthy application process,” said Merkt. “This is disaster relief. We need to get creative to get these funds out to the growers.”

The drought relief package included $2 million for irrigation modernization, which NUID will use later this year or next year to pipe some laterals in the district.

Another $1 million pinpoints drought resiliency project, such as installing a pumping station at Lake Billy Chinook that would make the region less dependent on water from the Wickiup Reservoir.

Because of the drought, growers in the district planted far fewer fields last growing season. Fallow fields create issues of soil erosion and weed pressure.

Jefferson County farmers and ranchers have access to $5 million in forgivable loans through the Oregon Agricultural Disaster Relief fund.

Whatever precipitation falls between now and the beginning of April will set the parameters for what and how much growers plant this season. Irrigators typically decided the season water allotment at the beginning of April.