In the community

Longtime Malheur County water manager heading to retirement

Owyhee Irrigation District Manager Jay Chamberlin talks about the importance of irrigation to the valley’s agriculture industry. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

NYSSA – Water runs through Jay Chamberlin’s life.

As manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District for more than 20 years, the Nyssa native had a box seat to witness the fickle manner of Mother Nature from floods to drought.

Now Chamberlin stands near the end of a career where he directed the yearly distribution of the area’s lifeblood and he said he is proud of his work.

By next year, Chamberlin said he will step into retirement. He will depart with an encyclopedia-like knowledge of water and irrigation techniques.

“I understand what the value of water is in the desert. It is life. It is the main bloodstream of this valley,” said Chamberlin.

The Owyhee Irrigation District is one of four major irrigation districts that help the county flourish. The cornerstone of Chamberlin’s irrigation district is the 417-foot-high Owyhee Dam.

Finished in 1932, the dam holds back the 52-mile-long Owyhee Reservoir. The reservoir provides irrigation water for more than 1,500 farms stretched across 118,000 acres of land in Malheur County and Idaho.

The watershed that feeds the reservoir stretches across 11,000 miles of land in Nevada, Idaho and Oregon.

The district’s mission is arguably one of the most important in Malheur County. Rich farmlands that produce onions and alfalfa and cattle would instead be desert.

“It is humbling at times to think you have that responsibility,” said Chamberlin.

Chamberlin said he began his natural resources career with the Owyhee Irrigation District right after he graduated from Nyssa High School.

Then he moved to Montana and spent nearly 18 years managing two irrigation districts.

In the early 2000s, Chamberlin said an opportunity opened up at the Owyhee Irrigation District.

“That was when John Ross was getting ready to retire. They reached out to me. We were lucky enough to be selected to come back,” said Chamberlin.

Chamberlin has been a solid presence at the district, said Bruce Corn, Owyhee Irrigation District Board member.

“He’s a great guy and he has served the district exceptionally well. He will be hard to replace and he is just one of those guys who has been a great spokesman for water issues,” said Corn. 

Chamberlin said he’s seen some significant changes since he became manager. The biggest transformation, he said has been in the political arena.

“When I say that, I mean environmentally, as far as rules and regulations and water quality and on and on. It is getting very difficult for agriculture to comply with water quality standards and stay in business,” said Chamberlin.

The burden of regulation on agriculture is growing, said Chamberlin.

“There is this pressure put on our agriculture to meet a standard that is often unachievable when it comes to using and applying water,” said Chamberlin.

Chamberlin said one of the aspects of his job he likes the most is “managing resources and the hydrology of it.”

“Over time, you can use technology to harness nature and put it to a use that is more beneficial to the whole community,” he said.

Chamberlin said another part of his job he enjoyed was as an advocate at the state and federal legislative level for his district.

“To be able to bring different groups together and, I think, to find common ground has been extremely rewarding for me,” said Chamberlin.

The chance to influence employees has been important to Chamberlin.

“We’ve changed the structure of our organization to give people the opportunity to grow and develop in our industry,” said Chamberlin. “I have employees here who have worked over 30 years.”

Triumphs, he said, are measured not only in the delivery of water but also in an understanding of how the greater irrigation system works and its importance.

“To see the vastness of the watershed and the power of the water and to be part of it and manage what so many people take for granted, people who don’t realize what it takes to get water 70 miles downstream. Once you understand that and work with your staff as a team, it is an incredible feat,” said Chamberlin.

Chamberlin is also very familiar with power and inconsistent nature of Mother Nature.

“You have to be adaptable and change with the conditions,” said Chamberlin.

A fickle Mother Nature, though, can create tension, especially during a drought. One of Chamberlin’s toughest tasks occurs when he must tell water users they won’t get the amount of the wet stuff they planned on because of a drought.

“Usually water brings the worst out in people. At times, you see the best in people but its seldom. It is a hardship and you take it personal when you have to explain to people why they are going to get a reduced amount of water because of drought,” said Chamberlin.

Every irrigation district relies on three elements. Ideally winter storms provide snowpack in the mountains. The snowpack then melts in the spring, creating high stream flows. Those stream flows then fill the Owyhee Reservoir – the water tank for the region.

“Our watershed is high desert drainage and we don’t have a lot of tree cover. So, it is pretty temperamental on how you get that snowpack out,” said Chamberlin.

Chamberlin said his successor will be chosen by the Owyhee Irrigation Board sometime in “the next 30 or 60 days.”

“They will have that person job shadow me for a number of months and possibly into the first of the year,” said Chamberlin.

After that, people may be able to find Chamberlin, 65, on one of his whitewater rafting trips or “tinkering around” at his small local farm.

Chamberlin said he will leave with no regrets.

“I feel like my career has been a noble one,” he said.

 News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

Wear and tear threaten critical Malheur County siphon

A rainy spring delivers solace to Malheur County farmers and ranchers


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