OID and farmers are bracing for record low irrigation season

March 8, 2022
OID and farmers are bracing for record low irrigation season

Prineville and Ochoco reservoirs are at record low levels, and SNOTEL levels are also below normal

As the days get longer and winter gives way to spring and summer, local farmers are quickly approaching irrigation season. Local irrigation depends on the available water from Ochoco and Prineville reservoirs, and the past two years have been difficult for farmers and ranchers. This year is forecast to be what Oregon senators are referring to as "the worst megadrought in more than 1,200 years."In a news release on Wednesday, March 2, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley announced they are joining western colleagues in calling on Senate leadership to include $616 million in emergency drought funding and agricultural assistance in the omnibus appropriations bill." The Colorado River, the lifeblood of seven western states, could lose 29% of its flow by the 2050s and 55% by 2100, and federal assistance is essential to adapt to the dramatically lower flows," Wyden and Merkley wrote.

"Many disadvantaged and tribal communities across the West are simply running out of water to drink… communities, such as the Klamath Basin, desperately need help to avoid an economic calamity." On a local level, Ochoco Irrigation District (OID) provides water for approximately 20,062 acres in Crook County, including 898 irrigators. They manage and maintain more than 122 miles of canals and laterals, and eight pumping plants. OID also manages the operation of Ochoco and Prineville reservoirs. The district works collaboratively with local, state and federal agencies, agricultural and conservation groups and stakeholders to responsibly manage their water supplies. "What we're seeing right now is trends towards a worse-than-ever kind of scenario," indicated Ochoco Irrigation District Manager Bruce Scanlon of the upcoming irrigation season. He added that Prineville Reservoir is at its lowest storage on record since it was built in 1964. Currently, for example, it has around 29,000-acre feet in it, and last year at this time, it had 59,000-acre feet in it.

"We thought that was bad," Scanlon added of the 2021 levels.For Prineville Reservoir, it is normally closer to 89,000 to 90,000-acre feet in an average year. Ochoco Reservoir, however, is also lower than normal, and it still has approximately 1,000-acre feet before it even reaches the bottom of the inlet to the tower. "So, there's no water coming out of Ochoco Reservoir because it can't — it's just been sitting there since October," he said. He went on to say that they will be able to pump from Ochoco Reservoir as they did last irrigation season, but there's such a limited amount that's able to be pumped, it wouldn't go very far."On Ochoco the last two years, we saw a combined storage of about 9,000-acre feet in 2020 and 2021.

An average year is 18,000-acre feet in a single year, and right now the indications are that we could be seeing worse than the last two years because of the current snowpack. "Scanlon added that if they only stored 2,000 to 3000-acre feet, their allocations would be a record low. "The 1991-1992 drought years would look good compared to what we might see this year."Scanlon indicated that although it is still early, there are a lot of variables that play into how snow runs off. In 2019, Central Oregon had a freak snowstorm, and Scanlon added that a wet spring or a late snowstorm can go a long way. "So, it's not like there's no hope, but at the current pace that we're seeing right now, we are way below (normal snowpack)." He added that if the low precipitation keeps up the way it is right now — and there's no reason to think it won't — then Crook County will be in a real bind.

The amount of snow at all the SNOTEL (snowpack telemetry) sites last year at this time was just over 66 inches of water, and the year before that in 2020 (what we thought was bad) was 53 to 54 inches of water. In the current year, we don't even have 40 inches as of this article. This data is most relevant to farmers and how it affects their upcoming crops and harvests. It affects what they plant, when they plant and what they will not be able to plant due to water shortages. Wade Flegel is a fourth-generation Prineville farmer who has served on OID's board since 2002.

He is currently serving as OID's chairman. Alongside his wife, Janice, of 38 years, and three of five children, Wade raises cattle, alfalfa, hay and carrot seed. Flegel recently shared some of his past farming experience in dealing with drought and associated water shortages."Every year is something new, and you get some different challenges that you need to work with," Flegel commented of the last few years of drought and difficulties he and his family have encountered as Central Oregon farmers.

Last year, his family put in crops that would not take as much water and would allow them to get as much production as possible out of their harvests. He added that alfalfa and grass crops take more water and this year, they planted crops that could take advantage of the winter moisture to get the best possible production. They still have crops they have not planted, and some of these may have to stay fallow to conserve their allotted irrigation for crops like hybrid carrot seed and alfalfa. He noted that they would need to keep as much water out of their allotment as possible to give to those crops."

We will try to take water away from some of our other fields and try to concentrate it on the most valuable crops," said Flegel. He noted that for new farmers and those who have not had to work through drought conditions, the expectations of what farmers think they should produce and how much water they would expect might need to be cut back considerably. "If you are raising only hay crops, you are going to have to realize you are going to have to not irrigate some of those. You are not going to be able to irrigate all your acres to the extent of what you had hoped to," Flegel concluded.

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An aerial view of a body of water.