County declares drought emergency

May 5, 2015
County declares drought emergency

By Jim Cornelius

Everybody who irrigates knows it - and last week the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners made it official: There's a drought emergency on the Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID).

The county declaration is, in effect, a recommendation that will be passed up to the state level and requires the signature of Gov. Kate Brown. The declaration is expected to be approved by the state drought council in their May 16 meeting.

"The purpose of the drought declaration is multiple," said TSID manager Marc Thalacker. "Once it is in place and the governor declares a drought for us, that kind of opens the door for our farmers to avail themselves of local and state programs."

The declaration expedites processes for irrigators to change their point of diversion or to switch to irrigating with groundwater. Depending on federal action, financial aid or loans may also become available to offset crop losses that are expected to be in the range of $1.5 million.

Hay growers will almost certainly not see a second cutting this year.

Karan Swaner, who raises sheep east of town, notes that "we're on 40-percent water. It's a terrible year."

She told The Nugget that she will not try to avail herself of the opportunity to switch to ground water.

"It doesn't pencil for me to even think about that," she said.

So she is moving her sheep around her pastures to take advantage of the green grass that's available now, and planning to butcher lambs about a month early this year. She will be selling lamb at Sisters Farmers Market.

"It just seems to me like a good year to try to manage around it," she said.

Thalacker acknowledged that pumping groundwater is expensive. He said a 150-horsepower pump pulling 1,110 gallons a minute will run up a bill of about $4,500 per month.

"That's going to take a bite out of their bottom line - but at least they've got water," he said.

The conditions are unusual.

"I don't remember ever starting a season at 40 percent," said Jeremy Giffin of the Deschutes County Water Master's Office. "That's pretty low."

The conditions are not due to lack of precipitation - overall precipitation is at pretty much normal levels. The problem is the paucity of snowfall. The snow measuring station at Three Creek Meadow registers zero snow moisture content.

"That's at 5,700 feet and there's nothing," Giffin said.

He recalled that Whychus Creek ran up and over its banks during heavy rains this winter. That ran up the precipitation totals - but the moisture didn't stick around in the form that irrigators like: snow that melts off gradually and provides them water in the spring and summer.

"The problem is the water came off so fast and at a time of year when people couldn't utilize it," Giffin said.

Other irrigation districts are in better shape than TSID because they have reservoirs that contain that rain runoff. The flashy nature of Whychus Creek and the restrictions on uses in the wilderness it runs through make it unlikely that a reservoir will be built on the creek.

However, TSID is in far better shape than it might be - thanks to piping projects that have enclosed ditches on the system and prevent water loss, putting some 20 cubic feet per second back instream.

Thalacker noted that conditions now resemble the most severe drought in recent times in 1977 - but the district is in better shape.

"We dried up the stream all summer (in '77) and only delivered 10 percent," he said. "It's a greatly improved situation."

If low-snow winters become the norm, the impacts of the drought could be ongoing - and they could spread to affect others besides surface-water users. Right now, the groundwater system is not as severely affected by the conditions as surface water. However, Giffin notes, observation wells in Sisters Country do indicate a long-term downward trend in the water table. If we see two or three years of such conditions, "it's going to take its toll," he says.

As Oregonians look south to the near-catastrophic drought confronting California, conservation on an individual level starts to look like a pretty good idea.

Giffin concurs.

"It's always a great idea to conserve water under these conditions."

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