Low snow pack in the mountains and low water levels in the reservoirs are prompting local farmers to request a drought declaration, the earliest on record.
Eight irrigation districts in our area are seeking the drought declaration, because they don’t expect water storage to improve before summer’s heat sets in.
Central Oregon farmers and ranchers and the irrigation districts who serve them already know there’s not enough water in the mountains to keep irrigation canals full during the normal growing season, April through October.
That’s why they are filing drought declarations early.
“This is the earliest we’ve asked for a drought declaration from the state for multiple reasons that we see things not changing,” said Craig Horrell, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District.
“We see it about the same if not worse than last year. Last year, COID was regulated down to about 65% to 70% of their regular allocation. For a junior water rights holder like North Unit, they could be at all time lows for how much water they put on their farms. They could be forced to shut off water in August and not September.”
As of March 1st, snowpack in the Deschutes and Crooked River basins was 85% of normal.
The water content of that snow was only 78% of average.
Wickiup Reservoir is less than half full and many other reservoirs that send water to farmers are nearly empty at a time of year they are normally brimming.
I spoke to North Unit farmer Phil Fine who expects to receive about one-quarter of his normal water delivery.
He’s experimenting with different crops that need less water and hoping for spring rains to help things along.
“I personally planted beardless grain so I can make hay out of it if I need to,” Fine said. “You get a couple of decent spring showers and you can get a hay crop. It won’t be what you would normally get. But, depending on the spring, you can get 60-70% of your normal year, maybe, if conditions are right.”
The drought declaration request must be approved by the Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson county commissions before being presented to the governor’s office which should respond within a month.
A formal declaration of drought creates greater awareness, facilitates coordination between state agencies and gives existing water rights holders access to emergency water management tools such as drilling wells and making arrangements to share water.