NUID asks state for $30 million

July 30, 2021
NUID asks state for $30 million

Even the trickle of water Jefferson County farmers had for their crops this year is about to go away. All water from the Crooked River will turn off by the end of this week, July 16. Water flowing from the Wickiup Reservoir will shut off on or about Aug. 20. That’s two months earlier than a typical water season.

“It’s unprecedented,” says Josh Bailey, manager of the North Unit Irrigation District. “Brutal.”

In a letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, NUID Board Chairman Martin Richards said five consecutive years of drought “have put Jefferson County farmers on the brink of collapse.”

Farmers began the year with the lowest allotment of water in district history, 1-acre foot. Irrigators planned accordingly. Most planted only half or less of their acreage. “I planted 160 of my 300 acres,” says Richard Avila. “Now I wish I’d planted less.”

The water shortage got worse, forcing the NUID board to cut allotments twice, ultimately to eight-tenths of an acre foot. Now growers must abandon some of the investments they’ve made in fields they’ve planted but cannot water. Next year looks even worse.

“At this point, we won’t be able to plant any carrot seed and no grass seed,” says Richard Macy, “unless somebody wants to gamble and plant it late.”

In his letter to the governor, Richards estimates the economic loss in Jefferson County’s carrot seed market alone at $30 million this year. In addition to carrot seed, Jefferson County also ships forage crops and grass seed around the country. Mylen Bohle, extension agronomist with Oregon State University, calculated losses based on fallow fields.

“If 25,000 acres of the 55,000 acres in NUID were dried up and fallowed this year, and if producers gross $1,000 per acre in crop sales, that is a $25 million loss.” Bohle considers $25 million a conservative estimate. “If you take into account alfalfa and grass hay fields that perhaps are only being harvested with one or two cuttings, instead of the usual three or four harvests, then you have even greater loss.”

The NUID took unusual steps to get more water for farmers this year. For the first time, the district bought Opal Springs water from the Deschutes Valley Water District. They paid exponentially more for the domestic water than they pay for water in the irrigation canal. The board explored borrowing water from the Prineville Reservoir against next year’s water supply. They considered using the effluent from Bend’s water treatment plant on crops in Jefferson County. One measure successfully stretched the flow over a longer time. By capping water deliveries to farmers at 1.5% of their remaining allotment, the NUID was able to rebuild the storage in the Haystack Reservoir.

“We’re gaining 90-acre feet every day,” says Bailey. “Our efforts are working.”

Haystack storage will extend water through the end of July. Efforts to wring every last drop out of the system bring on additional problems.

“We’re destroying our pumps because the flows are so low,” says Bailey. “They’re sucking up all the garbage in Crooked River. But we need the water so desperately.”

Those nine pumps each cost more than $100,000. “I’d rather shut the water off than destroy our pumping plants,” says Bailey. “We don’t have a million dollars laying around to redo our pumping plant this winter.” In their letter, the NUID asked the governor for $30 million under House Bill 2006, which directs COVID money toward relief for natural disasters.

“We believe, as others do, that severe drought qualifies as a natural disaster,” says the letter. According to the letter, farmers would use the funding for mortgage, lease and equipment payment; to bridge income losses; to reimburse for purchasing water; and to stabilize the agricultural community.

“Without help, the regional economy in Central Oregon will suffer a great blow without the ongoing support the agricultural economy brings to the region.”

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An aerial view of a body of water.