Farmers watch and wait as reservoir levels inch higher

January 6, 2021
Farmers watch and wait as reservoir levels inch higher

Lower-than-average snowpack in the Cascades could set the stage for another challenging growing season in Central Oregon, but some farmers are still holding out hope that this winter could bring enough precipitation to push the area out of drought conditions.

“We’d like to see the snowpack higher. It doesn’t look like Wickiup (Reservoir) will fill,” said Phil Fine, who grows carrot seed, garlic seed, grass seed and other crops on his farm near Madras. “But we still have some time.”

Snowpack in the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins was 98% of normal as of Monday, according to data compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Precipitation was 88% of normal for the water year, which started on Oct. 1. Still, most of Deschutes County is in a state of severe drought, according to U.S. drought monitor.

Central Oregon farmers have been hit hard by low snowpack in recent years, forcing many to fallow fields, which lowers their revenue and also creates dry, dusty conditions. The low snowpack can also have long-term negative impacts on the environment, as both fish and wildlife depend on higher stream flows for their survival.

The water year had started off well. In mid-November, Bend was 144% of normal for precipitation. While the region was dry for most of December, January storms could push the snowpack to above average. According to the National Weather Service, rain and snowfall is forecast for Central Oregon through Friday.

“We are seeing an active storm track in the North Pacific the last few weeks and this is expected to continue through January,” said Larry O’Neill, associate professor for Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Significant snow and rain won’t have immediate impacts on this area’s reservoirs, however, due to Central Oregon’s porous volcanic soil, which makes refilling of reservoirs a slower process compared to other areas in the state.

Instead of entering streams and creeks, much of the rainfall over Central Oregon seeps into the soil and enters underground aquifers, which takes longer to recharge reservoirs. So while large snowpack accumulations this winter can’t do much for the reservoirs in 2021, it would help to fill them in 2022.

Wickiup Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Central Oregon, was 34% full as of Monday, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. On average, Wickiup is around 73% full at this time of year.

“Wickiup Reservoir is on track to start the 2021 irrigation season at a record low level, which I am fairly confident will happen no matter what the next three months bring in the way of precipitation,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Wickiup finished the irrigation season bone dry this year, the third year in a row that the reservoir was at or near empty when the irrigation districts stopped diverting water into their canals.

The lower water levels are affecting natural lakes, too. Crescent Lake, a natural lake with storage capacity allocated to Tumalo Irrigation District, is just 26% full, down from 87% of average at the start of the 2019 irrigation season. This does not bode well for the district, which relies on water storage from Crescent Lake as its supplemental supply to Tumalo Creek.

For junior water-right holders, the low reservoir levels likely mean a fourth year in a row of water rations.

This past growing season patrons of North Unit Irrigation District, a junior water-rights holder, were allotted a foot and a quarter of water per acre for the season, compared to two-feet per acre during a normal growing season. Less water results in fewer acres planted and as a result, lost revenue.

“A foot and a quarter was miserable,” said Fine, who in addition to his farming duties also serves as a board member of North Unit. “It just took all the fun out of farming.”

In addition to lower yields, the lack of planted acres also resulted in horrific dust storms in late summer, turning parts of Jefferson County into a Dust Bowl.

“It was just ugly,” said Fine.

Marty Richards, North Unit’s chairman, said farmers are hopeful the snows will come, but they remain realistic about their situation.

“In North Unit there are farmers who are in financial trouble, but we are all hopeful that between conservation and good winter snowpacks we will get through these challenges and be better for them,” said Richards.

Fine said farmers who are in financial distress due to the water shortages don’t have many options available to them.

“You can go bankrupt, like any other business, or you can sell your farm,” said Fine. “But we have a lot of equity in the farms and equipment, and if we are not getting water, the value of the farm goes down. So far we haven’t seen that, but it’s just a matter of time if this continues on.”

Fine said diversification is key to navigating these unpredictable times. He and his wife also run a flower delivery business in Portland, which helps offset losses on the farm.

“Every farm situation is different,” said Fine. “Some guys can weather it better than others.”

While the farming community struggles to deal with the water shortages, Fine remains confident that the current state of affairs is temporary — just a long-term weather pattern that will eventually cycle back to colder weather and more snow.

“We are the eternal optimists,” said Fine. “We are bound to come out of it sooner or later. It’s just a matter of hanging on long enough.”

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