As western drought lingers, low reservoir levels locally may mean tough planting and growing season ahead

A section of the Malheur siphon funnels water from the Owyhee Dam to nearby irrigation canals in and around Vale. A lingering drought combined with meager snowfall could impact the region’s agriculture industry. (The Enterprise/FILE)

VALE – Mother Nature’s water storage bank account is nearly drained.

If nothing changes between now the upcoming growing season, area farmers and ranchers will confront a new array of challenges triggered by low reservoir levels.

The local area – and large portion of Oregon and the West – has been locked in drought for years which created a domino effect each year less rain and snow dropped in the mountains.

“It is a long-term impact in the region that is really coming into play,” said Scott Oviatt, a hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The county earned a drought declaration from the state last summer. Much of the county was in moderate to severe drought much of 2021.

Local reservoir levels from last week paint a dismal picture.

Warm Spring Reservoir stood at 11% full while Beulah was 29% full. Bully Creek Reservoir near Vale was 45% full while the Owyhee Reservoir was at 25% full.

Typically, water managers like to see the Owyhee between 35% and 40% full going into the spring runoff period.

Low water in a reservoir means a smaller water allotment for the year for farmers who need it to irrigate crops.

That, in turn, can impact the county’s biggest economic sector – agriculture. More than 170,000 acres in the county are irrigated. 

Those irrigated acres power the local area’s $80-million onion industry and other cash crops, such as alfalfa.

Based on the amount of water in the Owyhee Reservoir now, Owyhee Irrigation District patrons – about 1,800 – will see a smaller allotment in 2022.

“Right now, they are looking at a little over one acre foot of water per acre. That’s pretty tight,” said Jay Chamberlin, former Owyhee Irrigation District manager.

Last year, the Owyhee Irrigation District slashed its water allocation from 4 acre feet to 3 acre feet. An acre foot of water is enough water to flood an acre 1 foot deep. 

Clancy Flynn, new manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District, Clancy Flynn agreed the water outlook isn’t good.

“Even if we got exactly what we got last year and received that much water in from now until they started up, we’d still be at 1.8 acre feet,” said Flynn.

At the start of the year there was some cause for optimism because the Pacific Northwest was locked in a La Nina weather pattern. La Nina is a complicated weather condition that occurs because of deviations in ocean temperatures.

Typically, La Nina delivers a slightly wetter pattern to the region. This year, though, is appears La Nina impacted the extreme north and northwest part of the state, not areas like Malheur County.

“We are going into some tough times in Oregon for the summer,” said Larry O’Neill, Oregon State University climatologist during a recent press briefing.

O’Neill said that during the last two years Oregon experienced its third driest period on record, with central and southern Oregon the worst.

The level of snowpack and the speed of the subsequent runoff during the spring also play a significant role in the water outlook.

As of March 1, the snowpack in the Malheur Basin was 75% median while precipitation for the area was recorded at 43% of median. In the Owyhee Basin, the snowpack was 84% of median as of March 1 and the amount of rainfall for the area was 46% of median.

The timing of runoff from the snow high in the mountains is also crucial.

“People don’t comprehend snow to us is stream flow and you got to get it running. Rain alone doesn’t do us much good, we just lose it to the soils,” said Chamberlin.

Yet runoff depends on weather conditions.

“These warms days and cold nights kill us. Once it starts to run you want it to keep coming but if it gets cold we lose it, it goes into the soils,” said Chamberlin.

He said, though, a few quick but severe storms across the Owyhee Basin could be a big help.

“One good storm out there can give us 50,000 acre feet in a heartbeat,” said Chamberlin.

The single bright spot, said Chamberlin, occurred during a recent flyover of the Owyhee Basin. Then, he said, it was evident there was still a lot of snow locked up in the basin.

“We were pleasantly surprised at what we still had out there,” said Chamberlin.

Bruce Corn, a local farmer who also serves on the Owyhee Irrigation District Board, said there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the upcoming water year.

“Where we stand today it would be really bad but these next four weeks will be real critical on where we end up. Historically, we know we will have some more runoff but how much remains to be seen,” said Corn.

Jared Hoshaw, state watermaster for Malheur County, said there “is still a little time left in the run season and we don’t know exactly what spring will bring for rain yet.”

“A few good storm systems could help things out significantly,” he said.

Lower stream flows, he said, “may lead to a shorter growing season.”

“Especially if an irrigator does not hold a supplemental water right from another source. But, there again, a wet spring can change the outlook of stream flow significantly,” said Hoshaw.

Yet Chamberlin said he isn’t making any bets on a sudden, improved water outlook. Oviatt, too, said the water picture could improve, but he doesn’t see that as likely.

“There is always the opportunity for that March or April miracle but as each day passes that is less and less likely,” said Oviatt.

Chamberlin said the scarcity of water will impact area agriculture producers.

“A lot of guys will idle some ground,” he said.

Chamberlin said about 35,000 acres rely on the Owyhee Reservoir during the planting and growing season.

“The guys with drip (irrigation) will do better of course and those who are flood irrigation will run out quick,” said Chamberlin.

Oviatt said the water situation is a dire one.

“You can say, most likely, you will not have adequate water supply to meet current or standard demands,” said Oviatt.

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

Previous coverage:

Drought, hot weather produce new challenges for area ranchers

Blistering heat blasts Malheur County crops, could impact yield

Water outlook in Malheur County remains bleak despite spate of recent storms

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