Water flows to some farmers cut off from irrigation due to drought

October 7, 2021
Water flows to some farmers cut off from irrigation due to drought

After more than six weeks without water deliveries, North Unit Irrigation District and Arnold Irrigation District have started sending late-season water to their patrons.

The two districts, both starved for water since Wickiup Reservoir emptied in August, have access to water for about two weeks until the end of the irrigation season. North Unit Irrigation District irrigates 59,000 of acres of farmland in Jefferson County, where farmers have had to leave some fields fallow because of drought.

Arnold Irrigation District serves about 4,300 acres in south Bend.

Water is available because Central Oregon Irrigation District, a senior water rights holder with rights dating to 1900, shut down operations early this year in order to get an early start on its Redmond to Smith Rock piping project, according to District Manager Craig Horrell.

The live flow became available on Oct. 1.

North Unit Irrigation District, a junior water rights holder with rights from 1916, is eligible to divert live flow water when a senior rights holder declines to take it. The district is now diverting approximately 600 cubic feet per second from the Deschutes River, according to data from the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Arnold Irrigation District, which has water rights dating back to 1905, has been diverting around 72 cubic feet per second since Oct. 1.

The water diverted by North Unit Irrigation District was initially stored in Haystack Reservoir, said district General Manager Josh Bailey. Some patrons received water as early as Wednesday.

This is not the first time this year that Central Oregon Irrigation District has made water available for junior water rights holders. In June, as part of its drought management strategy, the district began sharing 100 cubic feet per second of water with junior irrigation districts, including North Unit, Arnold and Lone Pine.

Live flow water will be available for North Unit and Arnold until the ramp down of Wickiup Reservoir, when less water is released into the river. Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin watermaster, said the ramp down is expected to occur between Oct 20-23.

The water delivery has been a welcome sight for patrons who have gone weeks without water.

“We’re very pleased. Basically, it gives us a chance for some production going forward,” said North Unit farmer Phil Fine.

Another North Unit farmer, Mike Kirsch, described the arrival of water as “a very big deal.”

“We have turned a substantial amount of water back on,” said Kirsch. “We are watering established grass seed fields, and new planting grass seed fields as well as newly planted carrot seed fields. We are also watering our nursery stock.”

Kirsch said the water will allow him to keep established crops alive before winter and get new seedings established for next year. But looking ahead to next year, he recognizes that the drought will continue to impact his business even if winter brings substantial snowfall.

“It’s still going to be a tough irrigation season next year. Right now we are projecting having to leave 40-plus percent of our farm idle,” said Kirsch. “As we make our budget for this year that is what we are planning on. When 40% of your income is not there, it’s very challenging.”

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