March 27, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Deschutes County May Face Water Troubles By Next Year

March 27, 2010
March 27, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Deschutes County May Face Water Troubles By Next Year

It may have been snowing in Bend on Friday, but with the low amount of precipitation this year, state and local officials are preparing for spring and summer drought conditions.

Because of low precipitation in the Klamath Basin, Gov. Ted Kulongoski has declared a state of drought emergency in six Oregon counties, including Deschutes, and the federal government has agreed to allow some leniency to irrigators in the Klamath basin, but water officials here say the area won’t suffer as much as Klamath, at least not this summer.

“This year we seem to be in good shape, but then next year is the big question,” said North Unit Irrigation District General Manager Mike Britton.

According to the state, the Klamath basin could have the worst shortage of water since 2001. As of Friday, the area’s snowpack is 59 percent of average and 2010 precipitation had been less than 2 inches, more than 1.5 inches fewer than normal.

The snowpack in the Deschutes basin and Crooked River Basin, at about 59 percent of average, is lower than in Klamath. Kyle Gorman, the regional manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said rain has also been below average for the year.

As a result, this spring the runoff into streams will be lower than usual, but Central Oregon likely won’t struggle as much as the Klamath basin.

“We’re very lucky to have a groundwater system that buffers us through these shorter and intense dry periods and acts as a backup supply,” Gorman said. “With very careful management we’ll be able to get through the year.”

Troubles in summer 2011

It’s unlikely that people floating or fishing on the Upper Deschutes River will notice any changes. The flows, Gorman said, will be typical.

But next summer is still a big question for water users.

Britton’s irrigation district pulls water from the Wickiup Reservoir, which is currently full, but he’s worried about 2011.

“We’re in good shape this summer, but next year is really the question that needs to be answered as far as what our reservoir levels will be, what our snowpack runoff and spring runoff will be,” he said. “With less snowpack and in-stream flows, we’ll be more reliant on the storage that is in Wickiup.

“So much of our livelihood relies on Mother Nature that without a good snowpack or a good carryover, it becomes a big concern for irrigation districts.”

While Central and Southern Oregon will see more rain and snow in the next week, Jon Mittelstadt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pendleton, doesn’t see that lasting.

“The pattern we’re in now with these systems coming through will give us several additional chances for periods of precipitation,” he said. “But for the next one- to two-month outlook, it looks dry.”

Mittelstadt attributed the long-term dryness to El Niño, which he said typically brings dry weather to the area. Precipitation, he said, will be normal or below normal for this time of year.

But it’s not all bad news for the area.

“We have five very large reservoirs around the (Deschutes) basin that are in good shape or full at this time,” Gorman said. “A couple are nearly full and the rest are in fairly good shape.”

The reservoirs are full, Gorman said, because the Upper Deschutes water system is based primarily on groundwater, and the reservoir system remained fairly full last year.

That means there will be a decent supply of water for irrigation districts even without much rain and snow this winter.

“The natural runoff will be very low but we have reservoirs to rely on,” Gorman said. “We will be tight this year but we’ve got enough water to survive this season.”

However, Gorman said the reservoirs will be very low by the end of the season because irrigators will draw so heavily on them.

Compared with Klamath

Gorman said the Klamath basin faces a different challenge, because it has endangered species in it and federal law requires the basin to maintain certain flow levels.

“This year has been extremely dry down there and there was very little in-flow to the (Upper Klamath) lake to meet its required lake levels,” Gorman said. “So the water let out (of the lake), in addition to the very low in-flows, has left the lake below where it needs to be.”

Kulongoski’s order

That’s why on March 17 Kulongoski issued an executive order for a state of drought emergency in Klamath County and its surrounding counties: Deschutes, Douglas, Jackson, Lake and Lane counties.

The order allows the state to help irrigators, cities and towns, and other water users to come up with plans to get water.

With the executive order in place, irrigators and water users in affected counties can apply through the Oregon Water Resources Department for temporary emergency permits for use during the drought.

The permits allow farmers, ranchers and other water users to use extra groundwater instead of surface water rights, and can also use emergency transfers of water from one piece of land to another.

“Say someone has a water right and normally they pull it out of a river or a stream, but the stream is so low they don’t have water,” Gorman said. “They can rely on a well and obtain a water right called a drought emergency permit for well use as an alternate supply of water that will get them through this drought year.”

On March 18, the federal government agreed to allow Klamath basin irrigators to take water from Upper Klamath Lake. If more rain and snow falls in the coming weeks that water could be available for use by May 15.

Farmers have said if they can’t plant and water by June 1, they could lose the entire growing season.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program is also offering $1 million in financial assistance to some eligible Oregon farmers. The funds would pay up to 75 percent of the lost income or costs associated with conservation of water.

On Monday, the watermaster’s office will meet with irrigators and other water users from around the area to discuss water use for spring and summer.

Sheila G. Miller can be reached at 541-617-7831 or at

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