▶️ Deschutes Co. declares drought emergency; farmers look to alternatives

By BROOKE SNAVELY
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Deschutes County Commissioners on Monday unanimously approved a Drought Declaration due to low river flows and some of the lowest storage levels ever recorded in area reservoirs.

To the untrained eye, things look okay. Most irrigation canals have water in them and its been raining lately.

But for farmers and irrigation districts, the longer-term outlook ranges from concerning to scary depending on the sources of their water and seniority of water rights.

“We are first to pull water so we do what we can to tighten up our delivery system so that the junior water users have extra water if we can produce it,” said Shon Rae of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, one of the oldest and largest irrigators in the region.

Today’s drought declaration allows farmers who normally depend on stream flows to activate wells and tap into groundwater supplies.

The declaration also enables farmers to apply for crop insurance which they may need if crops fail due to lack of water.

The Three Creeks Irrigation District near Sisters is already hurting with streamflows in Whychus Creek about one-third of normal. That could mean one harvest of hay or alfalfa this year instead of the usual three cuttings.

“The streams are very low. They are not producing like they have in the past. The natural system isn’t as robust,” Rae said. “There is a chance toward the end of the summer that we would not be able to pull all of our delivery and that’s something we won’t know until it happens.”

Deschutes Basin watermaster Jeremy Giffin says when natural streamflows decrease, districts that have rights to stored water begin pulling water from reservoirs. At just 45% of capacity Wickiup Reservoir is the lowest it’s ever been for this date.

And recent precipitation isn’t helping. Rain may help water neighborhood lawns but it does little to help irrigators.

“It helps some but it’s not enough to make a huge difference,” Rae said. “Some people are probably shutting off temporarily. It might add a day or so onto the junior water users water supply, but it’s just not enough to impact how far in the hole we are.”

The basin water master told county commissioners there’s a good chance the Arnold Irrigation District in Bend and the North Unit Irrigation District in Jefferson County could be shut off before the end of irrigation season due to lack of water.

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