Water allotments for Jefferson County farmers inch higher but hardships aren't going away

March 30, 2024
Water allotments for Jefferson County farmers inch higher but hardships aren't going away

By MICHAEL KOHN The Bulletin

Farmers in Jefferson County will receive a higher water allotment for the second year in a row as drought conditions continue to ease across Central Oregon.

Yet the amount of water they will receive to grow wheat, hay, potatoes and seed crops is still meager compared to historical allotments.

The North Unit Irrigation District, a junior water rights holder in Jefferson County, said Friday its patrons will receive 1 acre-foot per acre from the Deschutes River and half an acre-foot from the Crooked River, said Josh Bailey, the district’s general manager, following a district board meeting Friday. Water delivery begins on April 15.One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, 1 foot deep.

Current reservoir storage levels, potential for conserved water and live river flows were a few of the factors that went into determining the allocation of water, said Bailey.

“It’s better than the last few years,” said Bailey. “We are slowly recovering.”

Bailey credits good water management policies for the improved allotment. Last year, North Unit kept some water in the bottom of Wickiup Reservoir when the irrigation season ended, instead of draining it clear to the bottom as it did the previous three seasons. That gave the reservoir a head start when filling began again in October.

Last year, the district allotted 0.7 of an acre foot from the Deschutes River and 0.35 of an acre foot from the Crooked River.

In 2022, the numbers were even lower, with allotments of 0.45 of an acre foot from the Deschutes and 0.225 from the Crooked.

The estimates were conservative each year, allowing a slight uptick in deliveries later in the growing season.

As of Friday, Wickiup Reservoir was at 77% of capacity compared to 66% of capacity on the same day a year ago. Officials planned to start releasing water at higher rates this weekend per agreements with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Megadrought impacts

The minuscule allotments over the past two years came amid a megadrought afflicting Central Oregon, one the state declared to be the worst in recorded history.

The dry conditions have been worsening since 2018, the last time North Unit patrons received a full allotment of 2.25 acre-feet.“Even though we are at one foot, it’s better than the past couple of years, but we are a far cry from where we should be,” said Bailey.

Farming production shrinks as allotments decline. At 1 acre foot, farmers leave roughly half their fields empty. With the remaining fields they must make strategic decisions about what to grow to break even.

Back-to-back winters with above-average snowpack have eased conditions only slightly. Due to their porous geology, reservoirs in the Upper Deschutes basin can take years to recover.

Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, warns that this year’s relatively snowy and wet weather could turn dry again this spring and into summer.

“If that projection is accurate, then the snowpack could melt rapidly and drought could develop or become more serious in Central Oregon,” Fleishman said. “I don’t think one can say with confidence that drought is not a risk for Central Oregon this year or next year.”

Because droughts are becoming more frequent, longer, and more severe across the Western United States, scientists are conservative when forecasting the weather.

“Even during a wet period, it’s sensible to plan for rapid development of drought or the return of drought,” said Fleishman, who also works as a professor at Oregon State University.


In addition to climate considerations, there are other pressures facing farmers.

“Five years of drought, continued reduced allocations and low commodity prices, is a recipe for not good things,” said Bailey. “It’s a triple-whammy.”

Commodity prices have fallen dramatically over the past two years as COVID-19-era supply chain bottlenecks eased. The price of wheat, for example, has fallen by half since 2022.Farmers agree that getting hit on multiple fronts is taking a toll.

“When you factor what has been going on the past three years, it’s kinda tough to get ahead anymore,” said North Unit farmer Phil Fine. “Then you look at what commodity prices are doing, it’s an uphill battle right now.”

Three years ago, Fine planted 350 acres of alfalfa. Because of the water shortages, he can only plant 80 acres now. He also plants fewer acres of grass seed, hay, sunflowers and carrot seed.

Multiple factors have caused Jefferson County’s water shortages, including recent environmental rules and junior water rights. But Fine said the biggest challenge is drought.

“It’s the laws of nature. It’s one of the main things we have to deal with — drought, rainfall, snowpack,” said Fine. “It’s really hard. It’s sad the state we are in.”

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An aerial view of a body of water.