This article was published on: 12/22/21 9:03 AM
Will this next year be as bad or will it be worse for Jefferson County irrigators?
By Pat Kruis
More than 100 farmers and ranchers gathered at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds Mackey/Conroy building Thursday night, Dec. 16 to plan for the coming irrigation season. Another 50 followed the meeting online.
“The weather predictions do not look good,” began Josh Bailey, General Manager of the North Unit Irrigation District, setting expectations that next year might be as bad or even worse than the 2021 irrigation season, which was the worst water year in the 75 years since irrigation began in the district.
“We see a lot of wheat going in,” continued Bailey, ” and we’re concerned we’re not going to be able to meet the demand early on.”
The NUID might have to cap irrigation orders to ration irrigators’ water use over the season, a tool the district used during the 2021 season for the first time, a tool farmers considered a necessary evil, at best.
Bracing for the worst
After five years of drought preceded by two low water years, farmers and ranchers are already taking steps to prepare for next year.
“We sent most of our herd down to California to graze,” says JoHanna Symons of the Symons Beef Company. They could not grow enough feed for their livestock this year, they could buy enough hay to feed them. The Symons kept their mother cows and calves in Jefferson County. They’re paying $250 per ton of hay, compared to $175 a ton last year. “It’s more than we’ve every paid for hay,” says Symons.
“Anybody who’d buy a farm in Jefferson County now would have to have rocks in his head,” says J.D. Alley even though he’s put his own Culver farm up for sale. “Farming isn’t easy. People went broke when we had water.” Alley doesn’t know whether he’ll farm this year.
“We’re doing everything we can,” says Jos Poland of Poland Dairy. Struggling through the drought, he thought 2021 might be the last for his dairy. Instead, he decided to shrink his herd by 40%. “Who are you going to sell a dairy to in a drought? I can’t get my value out of it. The relief money will help.”
State legislators voted Dec. 13 to give Jefferson County irrigators $17.1 million in drought relief. Patrons want to know how that money will be used. The package includes forgivable loans.
Three million goes to emergency soil conservation. Most farmers left half of their acreage fallow this year and watched the wind blow away their topsoil.
Some money goes directly to the NUID to give as credit to patrons on next year’s water bill, which Alley contends does no good for people like him who may not farm next year and won’t be buying water.
The state agencies still need to work out how to distribute the relief money and when.
The drought relief funds also invest in future projects for drought resilience and irrigation modernization projects.
For example, piping lateral lines in the district could save 25 cubic feet per second, once they’re installed, that is, which may not be until fall of 2023.
Installing a pumping station in Lake Billy Chinook would bring the district a long way toward drought resiliency, but likely won’t be ready for service for another five years or more.
Water for 2022
Until those projects get built, farmers and ranchers want to know where they’ll get water for the 2022 season. The district agreed to release 100 cfs of water from the reservoir throughout the winter months to protect the aquatic habitat, which empties much of the water NUID uses during the summer. Throughout the summer, from June 15 to Sept. 15, the district must maintain flows of 1,200-1,300 cfs at Benham falls. Only the surplus water goes to irrigation.
Jefferson County can count on one new source of water this upcoming year. Piping canals in the Central Oregon Irrigation District which serves Deschutes County saves water for Jefferson County. The 30 cfs COID conserves goes directly to North Unit patrons as live flow, which NUID chair Marty Richards argues is a better source of water.
“If it comes out of Wickiup in the summer we get less that a 50% delivery rate. If it come from COID the delivery rate will be 75%,” says Richards. “It will actually be a net gain for us.”
Piping improves the delivery rate because the water doesn’t evaporate or seep into the ground.
Richards adds the water from COID comes with water rights that are senior to Jefferson County’s rights, which are the most junior, thus the least priority in the entire Deschutes Basin.
“The water we get from COID has the second earliest priority date. Even in the drought year we will receive that water even when Wickiup doesn’t fill,” says Richards. “So, it’s a better water source.”
How’s the frog?
No one questions farmers in Jefferson County would have fared better in 2021 if they didn’t have to share water with the spotted frog and other aquatic species.
“In thirteen years we’ve given away a full reservoir for the frog,” says Scott Pollard who grows grasses and alfalfa.
“They don’t even know what the frogs need,” says Trish Backsen, who thinks the district may have to resort to dry land farming. “We gave up way more than we got out of this whole thing.”
It’s easier to calculate what irrigators lost than what they gained in the Habitat Conservation Plan, the document that outlines sharing water between farmers and frogs.
“What wasn’t mentioned,” said Bailey after the meeting ended, “is that they (the environmental concerns) wanted everything. They wanted to completely shut down the water from Wickiup for irrigation.”
Irrigators may have gained time, time to modernize by piping the system, time to become more drought resilient by building a pumping station at Lake Billy Chinook.
The next meeting
“I would love to hear from the legal counsel,” says Backsen, “that we paid millions and millions of dollars to. Where did these numbers come from?”
Patrons want to know if the biologist for North Unit comes to the same conclusions about the frog as U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists.
They want to know more about the flexibility of HCP terms when drought conditions become financially intolerable for farmers like they did this year.
They want to know when water levels will satisfy the frog’s needs, if ever.
The next meeting, they hope, will include the NUID legal counsel, the NUID biologist, and a representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.