Governor declares drought emergency for Deschutes County

June 23, 2015
Governor declares drought emergency for Deschutes County

Designation spurred by short water supply for small Sisters irrigation district

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

The dire water situation for a small irrigation district drawing water from Whychus Creek near Sisters has led to a state drought declaration for all of Deschutes County.

Gov. Kate Brown announced the declaration Friday in response to recommendations earlier this month by state water and emergency managers. The declaration is the first for Deschutes County since 2005, said Tom Anderson, Deschutes County administrator. The state declaration gives water users in the county flexibility in where they draw water, bringing relief to farmers in the Three Sisters Irrigation District.

“We are just pleased to see it,” Anderson said Friday after Brown announced the declaration.

Brown also declared drought emergencies in seven other Oregon counties — Grant, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Morrow, Umatilla and Wasco.

“The majority of our state is parched due to the warm winter and lack of snow,” Brown said in a Friday press release. “As we move into summer, many areas of the state are going to dry out very quickly, likely leading to a difficult fire season as well as water shortages. We need our state, local and federal partners to be prepared as our communities grapple with hot and dry conditions.”

While Deschutes County had requested a drought declaration for the Three Sisters Irrigation District, the state issues declarations on a countywide basis, said Kyle Gorman, region manager in Bend for the Oregon Water Resources Department .

“Administratively it is much easier,” he said.

The county already is under a federal drought designation, triggered by climate conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gorman said the state drought declaration allows water users in the affected counties to apply for permits letting them drill wells or draw groundwater and make other possible changes to their water supply. The federal designation opens the way for federal disaster financial assistance.

Brown already has declared drought emergencies for Crook County and six other counties — Baker, Harney, Klamath, Lake, Malheur and Wheeler — bringing the total number of counties dealing with drought emergencies to 15 of Oregon’s 36 counties. Crook County was also among nine counties under declared drought emergencies in 2014.

The latest declarations come following recommendations from the Oregon Drought Council. The council considers current water conditions, climatic forecasts and the economic effects of water shortages in weighing recommendations for emergency declarations, according to the governor’s office. A paltry snowpack heading into summer months, which are expected to be warmer than normal, has prompted drought worries around Oregon.

“Snowpack is at historic lows and severe water shortages are nearly a certainty in many areas,” Brown said in a video accompanying the announcement of the drought emergency declarations.

The Three Sisters Irrigation District is one of those areas. Farms in the district are receiving 30 percent of their normal amount of water for this time of year, and Marc Thalacker, the district’s manager. Even less water may be delivered this summer.

“It is pretty harsh,” Thalacker said. “Basically a lot of farmers will only get one cutting.”

Most growers in the district have fields of hay, primarily alfalfa, and typically cut three times in a growing season, he said. Thalacker said he expects economic loses of $1 million to $1.5 million. With the state declaration, he said water users in the district could draw groundwater to soften the impact of the drought.

The Three Sisters Irrigation District, which dates back to the late 1800s , serves about 180 farms on around 8,000 acres, Thalacker said. The district provides water for land in and near Sisters, Cloverdale and Lower Bridge. While most of the growers focus on hay, Thalacker said there are some commercial operations that plant seed crops, such as carrots, mainly in the northern parts of the district.

Unlike other irrigation districts around Central Oregon, Three Sisters does not have a storage reservoir.

“So we are going to be hurting pretty bad this year,” said Thalacker, who added the water situation for the district is the worst since 1977. That year Whychus Creek basically dried up and the district only delivered 10 percent of the normal amount of water.

While canal piping in years since has improved efficiency, the district relies on the creek, a snowmelt-fed system while most of the others in Deschutes County draw from the Deschutes River, a spring-fed system. The aquifer, or underground reservoir, has helped keep flows up along the Deschutes during the ongoing drought.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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