Drought leaves Crooked River a trickle

August 28, 2015
Drought leaves Crooked River a trickle

River near Post flowing at the same rate as a drinking fountain

By Dylan J. Darling

The Crooked River near Post this year is down to a trickle. The sobering sight of the dwindling stream symbolizes the ongoing drought and tough times for irrigators dependent on the river.

The flow is just a fraction of normal, said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin watermaster. He went to check on the river early this week after a gauge near the tiny Crook County town stopped indicating any flow at all on the river.

“And it was virtually dry. It was flowing at about a gallon per minute at our gauge, so about the same flow as a drinking fountain,” he said. As watermaster, Giffin is often out in the field, checking on gauges and water delivery systems.

Flows along the Crooked River upstream of Prineville Reservoir often drop low, he said, but not usually as low as they are now.

The lowest flows typically are around one-half to 1 cubic foot per second, said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department in Bend. One cfs is the same as 449 gallons passing by per minute.

The river at the gauge near Post has dropped so low that the state’s gauge is not picking up the flow.

“It is really, really low,” Gorman said.

Ongoing drought, resulting in a slight snowpack this winter and even less this spring, has left the upper reaches of the Crooked River with less water than normal, he said. The Crooked River is a “flashy” system, typically known for big flows in late winter and spring and dwindling flows in the summer. Those flows may spike up to 10,000 cfs. The river’s rhythm contrasts the Deschutes River, which has springs feeding it at a fairly constant rate year-round.

Low snowpack in the Ochoco Mountains prompted Gov. Kate Brown in April to declare a drought emergency for Crook County, the second year in a row for a drought declaration . Before that, the last year the county asked the state for help because of drought was 1992.

The current state of the Crooked River mainly affects irrigators who rely on the river upstream of Prineville Reservoir.

This year Jim Wood, owner of Aspen Valley Ranch in Post, said he only cut hay once. Normally he is able to cut hay at least twice in a growing season on a couple hundred acres supplied with water from the Crooked River. His family’s ranch has stopped drawing from it for the year.

“There was no water to re-irrigate,” he said.

Wood said the river is the driest he has seen it in 23 years.

The Ochoco Irrigation District in Prineville relies on water from Prineville Reservoir, where Crooked River water is stored. This has lessened the blow of the drought, but less water is available than normal this summer in the district, which serves 862 customers on more than 20,000 total acres around Prineville.

The customers, most of whom are farmers, normally are allowed 4 acre-feet of water each year per acre. An acre-foot is enough water to submerge an acre of land under a foot of water. This year the allocation is 2½ acre-feet, said Mike Kasberger, district manager.

He said the low flows on the Crooked River above the reservoir are a concern.

“Next year’s season relies on how much water is in the reservoir,” Kasberger said.

Boat ramps around Prineville Reservoir closed for the season early this year because of low water levels. The reservoir was 41 percent full as of Thursday, according to data from the Bureau of Reclamation. Data show the reservoir typically starts refilling near the end of each year.

If the weather turns wet any time soon, it could revive flows along the Crooked River, Giffin, the watermaster, said. Possible rain this weekend could add more water to the trickle near Post.

“If it stays hot and dry I would not be surprised to see that last gallon per minute dry up,” Giffin said.

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