April storms boost water supplies in some areas of Malheur County

The big pipe known as a siphon stretches into the Malheur County farmland, carrying its precious cargo of water. A recent string of storms helped some sections of the county in terms of water supplies but other other areas did not receive much moisture. (Malheur Enterprise/FILE)

NYSSA – The Owyhee Irrigation District received a big shot in the arm earlier this month after a series of storms moved through the area.

Water availability is the single decisive factor in local agriculture production, including the $80 million onion industry. According to 2017 statistics, the total market value of agriculture products sold in the county was $353 million. More than 170,000 acres in Malheur County are irrigated.

The storms dumped snow in the Owyhee Basin to help boost the water stored in the Owyhee Reservoir. In early March the Owyhee Reservoir stood at 29% full. Last week the reservoir was 46% full.

Cold and wintery weather between April 10 and April 15 did “the biggest amount of good,” said Clancy Flynn, manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District. “Things are looking up a little bit.”

He said the April storms helped the Owyhee Irrigation District increase its allotment for the planting and growing season from 2.3-acre feet of water to 2.5. An acre foot of water is enough water to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep. Last year the allotment was 3-acre feet.

“It (the storms) was definitely decisive for some of the onions guys who are not under drip,” said Flynn.

The boost means the specter of an early shut down – at least for the Owyhee Irrigation District – will recede, though not vanish, he said.

“I think it looks better on how early we shut off,” he said.

He said there appeared to be enough water to get farmers through August or September.

Other areas of the county aren’t as fortunate.

Ty King, manager of the Vale Oregon Irrigation District, said the storms that battered the Owyhee Basin did not make the same impact in the watersheds that feed Beulah and Warm Springs reservoirs.

King’s district manages water from Warm Springs, Beulah and Bully Creek Reservoirs.

“They (the storms) are going around us,” said King.

Bully Creek was in the best shape last week at 59% full. Beulah was 45% full last week, up from 29% full in early March. Warm Springs Reservoir, though, remains low, at 17% full.

King said, though, that irrigation water will flow from Warm Springs Reservoir this year.

Yet there will be a shortage of water long-term, he said.

Now, he said, the water allotment on the Vale irrigation project is set at 0.8-acre feet. For Bully Creek Reservoir patrons, the allotment is 2.1-acre feet.

“Everyone knows we will be short,” he said.

King said the district tentatively plans to release water “around the first of May.”

“The longer we wait, the better off everyone will be,” said King.

King said water could last to September if customers conserve.

“But if it is hot like last year, we will lose a lot because of evaporation,” said King.

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

Previous coverage:

Malheur County issues drought emergency declaration in a bid to seek state aid

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

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