As water runs out, Jefferson County farmers face uncertain future

July 3, 2021
As water runs out, Jefferson County farmers face uncertain future

Livelihoods are at stake as a once reliable supply of water comes to a halt amid drought, extreme heat

MADRAS — On a farm outside Madras, dairy farmer Jos Poland offers his cows some hay as they cool off in an airy, fan-cooled barn. It’s his 15th year as a farmer here, but he worries that the drought, heat waves and declining water supply have set him on a path towards closure.

“It took me seven years to establish those pastures, and now I see them drying up,” said Poland, who supplies high quality, organic milk to Darigold and Eberhard’s Dairy. “If we have two more years of this drought, I am done.”

Poland Dairy is one of several hundred family-run farms in Jefferson County that are fighting to stay in business as the limited water supplies cut deeply into profits. The crisis that is unfolding here has been building with each successive drought year, but none has been as bad as this one, with farms already running out of water that in a normal year lasts until October.

“This is the fourth year of the drought, and every year, it’s getting worse. This year is the worst ever,” said Poland, who grew up in the Netherlands before moving to the U.S. in 1993.

Seed and hay farmers can only plant half a crop, leaving their remaining fields empty. Dairy farmers like Poland can only grow minimal amounts of grass and hay with the current water supplies, forcing them to purchase expensive feed from other parts of the country.

“That is where we make our money — when the cows are grazing and we don’t have to buy so much hay,” said Poland, 56. “We grew some of our own hay, but we ran out (of water) after one cutting. Normally, we can get three or four cuttings, so that means buying more hay — if you can find it.”

Drought across the Western U.S. is limiting supplies of hay and grain, and driving up prices for these products, said Poland, who runs the farm with his wife, Deanna.

The cost of hay is 40% higher compared to a year ago, and the cost of grain is similarly up 60%, he said.

“I cannot afford to buy all my feed,” he said. “I will just go broke.”

Poland sold some dairy cows to make up for the losses. Around 250 cows remain. He cannot raise the price for his milk because he is locked into contracts with his buyers for up to two years.

The situation for Poland and other farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, a junior water rights holder in the Deschutes River Basin, has grown bleaker in recent days following decisions by the North Unit board to cut water allotments even further.

In nondrought years, North Unit farmers can expect to receive 2 acre-feet of water. This year they got 1. Last week the board cut that to 0.9 acre-feet. Then this week the board shaved it down to 0.8 acre-feet.

The root of the problem is located 100 miles to the south, at Wickiup Reservoir which was built in the 1940s as water storage for North Unit. For decades Wickiup was a reliable source of water for farmers. In recent years it has been drained clear to the bottom. The situation is similar this year, with Wickiup down to just 18% of its capacity in the first week of July, an unprecedented figure.

Marty Richards, board chair for North Unit, said the drought conditions this spring and summer forced the irrigation district to reevaluate its water supplies. The midseason cuts were the first since 1994.

“After we set the allotments in March, it got worse and worse and worse,” said Richards, speaking at his kitchen table with his son Kevin, who helps to run the family farm.

“It was predicted that Prineville Reservoir would fill. It was predicted there would be natural flow for us with our water right in the Crooked River. It was predicted there would be natural flow for us in the Deschutes. None of those things happened,” he said.

The younger Richards said the challenges for North Unit farmers vary based on what crops are planted. Hay farmers have tighter margins and will have to leave more ground fallow. Diversified farms with higher value seed crops are in a better position to weather the drought.

But everyone faces risks. After water allotments were reduced, the Richards decided to walk away from some of their hay crop in order to save water for higher-value crops. That will cost them some income but won’t immediately threaten the farm. Others won’t be so lucky.

“No question this drought is serious enough that some farms won’t make it,” said Kevin Richards. “There’s no question that the severity of it is more than some farms will be able to handle.”

Some farmers have already used up their entire allotment for the season. Madras-area farmer Gary Harris, who grows carrot and grass seed, is one of those farmers who has exhausted his supply.

“They took another tenth of our water away, and I had already used my 90% portion so I am actually in the hole,” said Harris. “I am out of water.”

Harris said the only possible solution is to purchase water from a neighbor who may have some to spare, but that will be difficult in a tight water year like this one. His only other option to save his crop, he said, is rain.

That looks unlikely in the near term, with the National Weather Service forecasting clear skies and temperatures in the mid-90s over the next week in Madras.

Solutions are few for the executives at the North Unit Irrigation District. Ideas to bring more water in the district are several years away, said Mike Britton, the district’s executive manager. One option includes pumping water out of Lake Billy Chinook.

“It’s a huge project with a big price tag, but it’s feasible for sure,” said Britton, speaking inside the modest headquarters of the North Unit Irrigation District. Around his office, black and white photos of Wickiup Reservoir’s construction feature prominently on the walls. “It’s at least two, three, four years out. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

A temporary station could be set up sooner, he said, depending on costs. Poland believes this is the best option to alleviate stress for farmers.

“This is dire enough that we just have to do it. It’s a matter of survival,” said Poland. “Otherwise this entire area here, Jefferson County, will be a dustbowl.”

Even if action is taken to set up new infrastructure, many could still be out of business before the pumping starts. Britton explains that the cost of fallowing land in recent years has taken a toll on bottom lines.

“These guys still have 100% of their costs,” said Britton. “You still have to pay the mortgage; you still have to pay taxes; you have to take care of the weeds. A lot still goes into it. You have to take care of that land even though it’s fallow.”

Some North Unit farmers are looking for help from the Central Oregon Irrigation District, a senior water rights holder that uses most of the irrigation water in Deschutes County. COID members are allotted 2.5 to 3 acre-feet per acre.

The district asked patrons to share water with North Unit, but just 10 patrons with 64 acres reached out to share their water, said Shon Rae, the deputy manager for COID. The district serves 3,600 patrons.

Back on the dairy farm, Poland chokes up and his eyes water over while he ponders the situation. It’s not the 112-degree heat that is affecting him. He is concerned about his future. He wants to pass along the farm to his 14-year-old son, Michael.

“At this point, I have no idea if I can survive this,” said Poland. “I have been a dairy farmer for 35 years of my life, and this is the worst I have seen it. This is not a happy story.”

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