A rainy spring delivers solace to Malheur County farmers and ranchers

(The Enterprise/File Photo)

VALE – Drought isn’t going to be a problem for area farmers and ranchers this year.

That’s because Mother Nature delivered ample snowfall and rain to the region to stymie concerns about a short water year.

Mother Nature, though, waited until the last minute. 

In November 2018, water managers, farmers and irrigation districts worried the 2019 planting season would be dismal. 

In February, water reserves in local reservoirs remained low. For example, Warm Springs reservoir was 12% full while Beulah was 28% full. Bully Creek reservoir was 34% full and the Owyhee reservoir stood at 41% full.

Fast-forward four months and the water storage in those reservoirs shows a drastic increase. 

Last week Warm Spring reservoir was 94% full and Beulah was 91% full. Bully Creek reservoir was 90% full and the Owyhee Reservoir was 98% full.

Why the turnaround?

A surprise series of storms beginning in mid-February turned the tide, said Scott Oviatt, snow supervisory hydrologist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Those storms not only boosted snow pack in the higher elevations but dropped ample rain in the lower levels of the Malheur Basin, said Oviatt. Snow pack levels already showed gains in February – the Malheur Basin registered a snow pack level of 130% of normal – but the string of storms coupled with cooler temperatures and cloud cover in the spring helped fill the reservoirs. 

“Timing is everything, between getting the cooler temperatures and maintaining those cooler temperatures through the spring,” said Oviatt. 

The rapid water turnaround was a surprise to some.

“Things look as good as I have ever seen. I don’t know that they’ve (reservoirs) been this full in June. It is pretty amazing,” said Ron Jacobs, Malheur County water master. Oviatt said shift was “unheard of.”

“We are at the Fourth of July and demand is not ramping up yet. Normally we are screaming because it is triple digits and we are irrigating like crazy,” said Oviatt.

Jay Chamberlin, manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District, said spring weather helped but it was a sequence of intense storms across the Owyhee watershed around Memorial Day weekend that really made a difference.

“Memorial Day weekend we are usually ramping up but we were ramping down. You couldn’t give the water away. The storms just kept hitting every afternoon and evening out there,” said Chamberlin.

Chamberlin said the Owyhee Reservoir began to fill rapidly. The reservoir “ran out of space,” said Chamberlin, forcing the district to release water. 

“It was really unusual. I don’t know in the history of the project that we’ve seen anything like that, that late,” said Chamberlin.

When the Owyhee Reservoir fills, that means farmers in the irrigation district typically have enough water for two years. 

Chamberlin said he was also surprised by the sudden influx of water. 

“I wouldn’t have bet on it,” he said. Stuart Reitz, Malheur County extension agent said the surplus of water eliminates the irrigation intangible for farmers.

“It kind of alleviates that concern, for the Owyhee in particular, and it is kind of a reassurance for the next year as well,” said Reitz. Reitz said it is hard to predict this early in the season whether ample water will mean higher yields for farmers. Mother Nature will again be a crucial factor, said Reitz.“In some respects, it is the Goldilocks thing. You don’t want it too cool or too hot. You want it just right,” said Reitz.

The later-than-normal storms that filled area reservoirs, though, also played a negative role for some onion farmers. 

Grant Kitamura, managing partner of Baker & Murakami Produce Co., an onion packer in Ontario, said about 20% of the onions across the Treasure Valley were put into ground late because of the spring rains. 

Kitamura said he isn’t sure whether that 20% of late onions will impact at harvest time.

“It could, but there are other areas that are looking pretty good and the ones planted prior to the rains look good,” said Kitamura.

Oviatt said this year has been a “flip-flop in terms of what we see.”

“Western Washington is already in an emergency state in many locations and the Olympic Peninsula had 10 percent of normal snowfall. We also have record low stream flows in the northern Willamette Valley,” said Oviatt. 

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377. 

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