One decent winter does not break a multi-year drought. That’s becoming obvious as streamflows decline and irrigation districts reduce water deliveries to farms and ranches.
“We’ve been running a stream gauge on Fall River, which is a spring fed tributary of the Deschutes River for 85 years, since 1938,” said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin Watermaster with the Oregon Water Resources Department. “The flows that we are seeing coming out of those headwater springs today are the lowest on record.”
The Fall, Deschutes and Metolius rivers are mostly spring-fed. It takes years for the snow melt that percolates into the ground each winter to travel through miles of volcanic rock before it emerges from hundreds of springs.
Even though the region received near average moisture from last winter’s snowpack, it’s the three previous winters’ below average snowpacks that are manifesting this summer.
“We’ve had to curtail to 60% because the live flow in the river is dropping further than we’ve ever seen in the last 100 years,” said Craig Horrell, Central Oregon Irrigation District managing director.
COID is the senior water rights holder in the basin. But even so, it’s more than 3,000 farmers and ranchers are going to be lucky if they get about half their usual water allotment for the rest of summer.
“What they’ll see as they are trying to put water on their fields, their ponds drying up faster or a flood irrigator not being able to push the water across the field. It will be noticeable,” Horrell said.
Low flows didn’t stop William from having a big day on the Fall River.
“Eleven fish. Just fly fishing with an old nymph rig. Put it right in front of their face and they eat it.”
While drought conditions have improved from extreme and exceptional to severe in recent months, the long-term precipitation trends are what drive the springs that feed the Deschutes River. Those flows are continuing to diminish.
“It took several years of drought conditions to get into this predicament. It will take several wet years to get us out,” Giffin said.