Reservoir levels, drought, stir farmer's fear of harsh summer

May 15, 2021
Reservoir levels, drought, stir farmer's fear of harsh summer

Farmers in Jefferson County fallow 30% to 60% of their fields as Wickiup drops to 43% of capacity

Even in years of drought and low water supplies, Phil Fine, a Jefferson County farmer, usually has something positive to say about the upcoming growing season. But so far this year even Fine struggles to identify any silver linings for his farming community.

“I am the eternal optimist, but this year is probably worse than last year,” said Fine, who grows carrot seed, bluegrass seed, alfalfa, and wheat.

“We have less water, and we are just as dry if not drier. Then the temperatures came up, and we got tons of wind, that just dries everything out. It’s going to be a tough summer.”

Drought, weak snowpack, and water rationing are creating challenges again for farmers in North Unit Irrigation District, which serves Jefferson County. This year marks the fourth straight season of water rations that force farmers to fallow large chunks of their land.

Fine said farmers are fallowing 30% to 60% of their property this year in order to have enough water for their remaining crops.

“We are getting by, but that is as good as it’s going to get this year. A foot of water in this country is not nearly enough,” said Fine, referring to the 1-acre-foot of water that North Unit farmers are allotted due to the rations.

In a year with plentiful water, they get 2 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre in a foot of water.

Less water to work with means lower crop yields, even though the cost of doing

business remains the same — insurance payments, license fees for trucks, property taxes, and other expenses still

need to be paid no matter how many acres of crops are planted.

“It’s just tough because you still have your expenses. To take care of the ground even if you are not growing anything on it, it still costs you money,” said Fine.

The water crisis was brought to the state level this week when Jefferson County commissioners asked Gov. Kate Brown to declare a drought emergency. A drought declaration allows farmers to tap into state and federal assistance funds.

Mike Britton, general manager for North Unit, said farmers are navigating the water shortage by choosing crops, such as mustard, that can grow with one watering as a cover crop to help prevent erosion from wind.

North Unit farmers are already one of the most efficient irrigation districts in the country in terms of water conservation. As junior water rights holders, their limited access to water has forced them to be conservative with irrigation practices.

Multiple years of below-average precipitation are part of the problem for farmers. Another factor at play is the additional water released into the Deschutes River in winter to benefit the threatened Oregon spotted frog.

Those winter releases have reduced the amount of water available for farmers in spring. The irrigation districts plan to conserve water by piping their canals, a win-win for both the frogs and the farmers. But the piping projects are years away from completion.

In the meantime, farmers are basically on their own to manage the water resources they have been allotted.

“The strategies employed to meet these challenges vary from farm to farm depending on the individual economic situation,” said Marty Richards, another North Unit farmer. “This struggle has caused some businesses to fail. If the water shortage continues, I believe there will be more.”

Joe Krenowicz, executive director for the Chamber of Commerce in Jefferson County, said the shortage of water is affecting not just farmers but also the extended agricultural community in Madras. When fewer acres of crops are planted, farmers are buying less fuel, fertilizer, and equipment.

“It hits every level of business, from the shovel sellers to the fuel suppliers to the large fertilizer companies,” said Krenowicz.

The source of the problem is at Wickiup Reservoir, 100 miles south of Jefferson County.

The reservoir was tracking 25,000 acre-feet behind 2020 fill levels over the winter and the reservoir remains off by that amount, said Britton. The current reservoir level is about 24% less compared to a year ago at this time.

“So far, runoff has been dismal,” said Britton. “Folks are managing as best they can — some have already used 25% of their water.”

The reservoir had just 86,937 acre-feet of water as of Friday, or 43% of capacity. The average level of the reservoir for this date historically is 176,093 acre feet — today’s levels are half of that.

The reservoir has struggled to fill in recent years as groundwater dries up and weak snowpack has been the norm. In 2018 the reservoir finished the irrigation season completely empty. In 2019 the reservoir finished the season just 8% full. Last year it went dry again.

Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said it’s too soon to say if any of the districts will run out of water this year. In August the Arnold Irrigation District ran out of water, the first such situation since 1994.

“It is dire this year,” said Gorman. “North Unit is in a really critical situation.”

While there is no immediate fix to the water crisis, Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy, said changes are in the works to facilitate a better balance in the distribution of water.

An abundance of water allotted to the Central Oregon Irrigation District can be rebalanced to help North Unit farmers — Central Oregon Irrigation District patrons are allotted three times more water than North Unit patrons. To make the rebalance happen, Central Oregon Irrigation District is working with Deschutes River Conservancy and other partners to facilitate water transfers and on-farm improvements.

“If we sit down in Deschutes County with plentiful water rights and supplies, and watch businesses in Jefferson County go bankrupt, that is a moral issue,” said Fitzpatrick.

“We are working to create the incentives to move that water around,” she added. “There is generally enough water, we just need to collectively manage it differently.”

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