In April of 2018, things were looking pretty good for the upcoming irrigation season. Wickiup Reservoir was completely full despite increased winter flow releases to support the Oregon spotted frog and despite a snowpack in the Cascades that was well below average.
As you have seen, things did not work out nearly as well as expected. Wickiup is now essentially empty according to the US Bureau of Reclamation Hydromet Diagram creating a deserved and much-needed conversation in our community about water. So, how did this happen?
To really understand what’s going on, you first need to know a few things. Wickiup Reservoir stores water for North Unit Irrigation District – the commercial farmers who live in Madras and Culver – who have “junior water rights”. There is not enough natural flow in the river to serve their water rights, so they rely on water held back from the river in the winter to use in the summer. Since they are last in line to get their water, especially in a dry year, farmers in North Unit have adapted their irrigation practices and crop selection to maximize the water they do get.
It’s really about supply and demand
If we take a look at snowpack over the past 6 years, we’ve only had one year where snowpack has been above average – the infamous “snowpocalypse” of the winter of 2016/2017. Apart from that fantastic miracle in precipitation, the other 5 years have been just average, or worse, or much worse! This affects the reservoir and water supply by shifting the timing of when water is available. Snow stored in the mountains makes up a significant part of our region’s water supply and is normally safely stored as snow, gradually melting throughout the summer and adding to the water supply. The small amount of snow we got this past winter melted earlier and faster than in a normal year, significantly reducing the amount of that was available later in the summer.
Snowmelt and tributaries flowing into the Deschutes have a large impact on what’s called “live flow”. That’s the natural flow that would be in the river regardless of the supplemental stored water that is released from Wickiup. According to Kyle Gorman of the Oregon Water Resources Department, there was a 17% decrease in live flow from last summer to this summer. Granted last summer was above average and this summer was well below average, but you get the idea.
The next contributing factor was weather conditions. Phil Fine, a farmer in North Unit explained that the farmers started out the year in a bad spot. After an incredibly dry spring, there was no deep moisture in the soil. Farmers used much of their early irrigation season water to “fill up the soil profile” just to get the ground ready to support crops.
Next we move to water allocation. Given the optimistic conditions at the beginning of the summer (live flow in the river and a full reservoir), North Unit ensured farmers that they would be able to deliver the water they were expecting. Despite dwindling supplies, the district was required to deliver the quantity of water they promised based on the more optimistic water forecast made in the spring.
Looking to next year, water managers are not expecting the reservoir to fill this winter no matter the snowpack – which is not anticipated to even close to average. Their hope is that it might fill to 75%. This will put North Unit farmers in a very tough spot requiring them to increase the percentage of land already fallowed and make it very difficult to release anything more than the minimum required flows in the river.
The Oregon Spotted Frog Biological Opinion is just a part of the picture
In 2014, the Oregon spotted frog was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act resulting in changes to water management to accommodate the life cycle of the frog and its habitat needs. Under a biological opinion produced by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and in consultation with U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, changes in how water is managed has made an impact as well. While not necessarily problematic in a normal precipitation year, during a dry year, it does end up adding to the water supply problem.
Water for the spotted frog has gotten much of the blame in the media, however, it really only accounts for a part of the problem. Poor snowpack and a dramatic decrease in water supply from warmer, drier weather patterns were a much bigger problem this year.
How can we stop this from happening in the future?
While this news is daunting and not just a little depressing, there is some good news. The Deschutes River Conservancy has been facilitating a Basin Study over the past 3 years which has given us a tremendous amount of information on local water demands, water supply and the effects of climate change on both.
The best way to solve this problem is to help irrigation districts update their 100-year-old leaking canal systems, to encourage and incentivize more efficient water use on farms, and develop water marketing programs that allow water rights to be transferred from a willing seller from a water abundant district to a willing buyer in a district facing water scarcity.
Central Oregon Irrigation District is embarking on an ambitious series of projects that will ultimately pipe their Pilot Butte Canal over 20 years. When complete, this project will conserve the equivalent of almost half of the capacity of Wickiup Reservoir. And water marketing solutions are being developed to complement these infrastructure improvements and to be executed in these dry years before the canal piping is able to come online.
Take heart that this water situation is solvable and the Deschutes River Conservancy is dedicated to working with our basin partners to create programs and find funding to solve the persisting challenges that have challenged the Deschutes River for many decades.
Photo credit: Tim Wehde of Central Oregon Daily