Ramp down starts for Wickiup as drought takes its toll

August 21, 2021
Ramp down starts for Wickiup as drought takes its toll

Water storage for North Unit Irrigation District runs out for the third time in four years

For the third time in four years, Wickiup Reservoir has run out of storage water.

Josh Bailey, North Unit Irrigation District general manager, ordered the dam tender to start curtailment duties Wednesday, when the reservoir reached 2% capacity level. Authorities are planning to keep a low level of water in the bottom of the reservoir to protect the Deschutes River from silt, also known as turbidity.

Cutbacks to the dam will occur at a rate of around 10% per day over the course of three days, Bailey explained in an email.

The cutbacks will affect farmers. For river users close to Bend, though, tubing, rafting and kayaking will still be possible as the river’s natural flow out of Wickiup will continue unabated. Experienced river users, however, may notice a drop in the flows of the river.

The reservoir ran dry last year too, and without a base of water to start from, water authorities anticipated that filling the reservoir was going to be a challenge. The dry spring and summer sealed the reservoir’s fate.

“I am disappointed to be running out of water so early in the season,” said Bailey. “I think the majority of the issues need to be blamed on the 100-year drought.”

Wickiup, which also emptied in 2018, is not the only reservoir to struggle this year. Prineville Reservoir is also emptying quickly and as of Wednesday was just 30% full.

In addition to the drought, Bailey said the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan is another factor preventing the reservoir from filling in winter. The plan — approved last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — mandates higher flows out of Wickiup in winter, which means less water is stored during the wet months for irrigators.

This year authorities are taking steps to avoid turbidity, which last year caused the Deschutes to turn an unusual green-brown color in September. Dam managers are leaving 2,500 acre-feet of water in the reservoir this year to protect the river from turbidity.

The flow of water out of Wickiup on Wednesday morning was 1,017 cubic feet per second, and the flow at Benham Falls was 1,280 cfs. Both of those numbers are expected to be reduced by around 40% by the end of the week.

Farmers who rely on storage water for their farms will experience water cuts in the coming days. In a message to patrons posted Tuesday on the North Unit website, the district said its diversion would shut down this week with final adjustments to ditches made on Friday.

“Water will remain running to those water users who have ordered water until the main canal has drained,” the statement said. “Expect the temporary shutdown to last until early October.”

The lone factor that could help boost river levels is wet weather, but no storm clouds appear on the horizon, said Larry O’Neill, an associate professor at the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

“The three-month outlook suggests above-normal chances of a drier than normal fall,” said O’Neill. “Even though this outlook is more uncertain, it does suggest that extreme and exceptional drought conditions will persist throughout Central and Eastern Oregon for the remainder of the calendar year.”

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