What Did all that Snow Mean for Water Supply?

It’s mid-March and the sound of shoveling show has been replaced by the sound of melting snow. As we are finishing slushing through our daily lives, it’s easy to think that these past late-season snowstorms have solved Central Oregon’s water problems for the coming year.

All you have to do is take a look at the Oregon snowpack map (see below). Those reassuring blues and greens throughout the state are such a relief after last year’s bleak snowpack of 58% of average. So, we’re good, right?

Current Snow Water Equivalent (SWA) %

 

Not quite.

Meet Phil Fine. He’s a third generation commercial farmer from Madras who grows carrot seeds, alfalfa, bluegrass seed, and wheat. This year he plans to fallow 33% of his lands in anticipation of a lack of water.

Phil Fine

Phil’s starting out the season with well-saturated soil, which puts him well ahead of last spring when his land was bone dry at the beginning of the planting season. This is a very good thing and this, according to Phil, will save farmers this year.

Why all doubt then? It has to do with the current level of Wickiup Reservoir. Drained to historic low levels (1%) last year after a long, hot and dry summer,the reservoir has only refilled to 64% as of last week. The expectation (read: hope) is that it increases to 69% full by the beginning of irrigation season in April.

Farmers in Madras and Culver make up the North Unit Irrigation District and have the most junior water rights on the Deschutes River at Bend. That means that in times of water scarcity, they are last in line to get their water. Unlike other irrigation districts, North Unit farmers are largely dependent on water stored in Wickiup Reservoir through the winter and released into the river in the summer. This water augments the “live flow” of the Deschutes River to meet water right demands that far exceed the natural capacity of the natural supply.

80 years ago, this system worked well and allowed Central Oregon to develop into the community it has become. In those early days, the water in the river was viewed as an unlimited resource to be harnessed and used as much as possible. The ecological needs of the river system were not considered as a factor by early homesteaders.

Today we have growing cities, increasingly urbanized former agricultural lands, concerns about the quality of life, and the responsibility to leave the river better than how we found it. This means that we need to update our 100-year-old water management system to reflect the needs of the 21st century.

Last week, North Unit Irrigation District set their water allocations for the irrigation season. After acknowledging they set allocations too high last year, the district erred on the side of caution given the historically low level in Wickiup Reservoir at the beginning of the irrigation season. Farmers in Madras and Culver can plan to get only 75% of their water this summer. This will be 1 ½ feet of water per acre compared to irrigators who will receive more than 5 feet per acre in districts closer to Bend such as Central Oregon Irrigation District.

This imbalance of water distribution and the effects it has on the river is one of the primary focuses of the Deschutes River Conservancy. We are working with our partners on agreements and strategies that will enable districts to start sharing water through water conservation projects and water rights leasing. The more we can help irrigators conserve and share water between districts, the more we will be able to reduce the demand on stored flows and finally increase the stability of flows the Deschutes River.

Low winter flows in the Deschutes River cause erosion, degraded fish habitat, and an overall decline in the river ecosystem.