After a promising spring, drought again stalking Central Oregon farmers

July 16, 2023
After a promising spring, drought again stalking Central Oregon farmers

Warm and dry weather this summer is forcing irrigation districts in Central Oregon to begin water curtailments this month, a disappointing turn of events for irrigators following a cool and wet spring season.

The water curtailments are the result of dwindling natural flow in the Deschutes River, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control said in a recent news release.

The reduction of water available for agriculture will cause renewed strain on Central Oregon farmers already suffering from multiple years of low water allotments due to multiple years of drought and environmental regulations that require more water to be left in the Deschutes River for Oregon spotted frog habitat.

“The season started out strong but is fizzling fast because the warm days have diminished live flows in the Deschutes,” said Craig Horrell, general manager of Central Oregon Irrigation District. “We are still in drought and started curtailing last week.”

Live flow is the water available to irrigation districts in streams and rivers. It can increase or decrease depending on river levels. The districts that rely mostly on live flow will be most affected by the curtailments while districts that have reservoir storage are less impacted, Horrell said.

Officials say this year’s higher-than-average snowpack is not resulting in significant snowmelt runoff that translates into live flow because the overly dry landscape is absorbing water too fast. Only when the aquifer is saturated does snow melt begin to run into streams in large quantities.

“The long-term recovery requires several years of above-average precipitation,” said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin Watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The flow of water in the Deschutes below Benham Falls is around 100 cubic feet per second lower than it was at this time a year ago, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s water year graph.

Central Oregon’s three counties are all in moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Drought conditions have subsided this year compared to a year ago, but the area still remains very dry and challenging for growers.

Central Oregon Irrigation District, the largest district in the area, is among those that rely on live flow. Three Sisters, Arnold, Lone Pine and Tumalo irrigation districts are others that also utilize live flow from streams and rivers.

Districts that utilize stored water from reservoirs will need to rely only on those supplies and should not expect to receive additional water from live flow, the board of control said in its statement. The board has advised irrigators across the region to plan for water shortages this summer.

“We are very much still in drought conditions as the rapid snow melt-off has occurred and natural flows are dropping rapidly,” said Josh Bailey, general manager of North Unit Irrigation District.

Some districts are already planning an end to their irrigation season. Arnold Irrigation District says it will be out of water this month and will shut off delivery to patrons by around July 28. That is only slightly better than last year when the system shut down on July 23.

Tumalo Irrigation District is planning to shut off its water to patrons on Sept. 8. “We recognize this date is significantly earlier than previous years but it is based on the fact that the district will be out of water by then,” according to a statement on the district’s website.

North Unit Irrigation District is planning to supply water until the end of the irrigation season in mid-October but the amount of water it is delivering to patrons is less than half the amount it delivers in an average year.

“We were able to deliver water all season last year because we had a meager allotment,” said Bailey. “The same principles are in play this year.”

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