Business & economy

Malheur County farmers can count on ample water for planting, harvest seasons

VALE – The weather has once again dealt local farms a winning irrigation hand.
Ample snowfall over the winter and a steady runoff this spring translated into the highest water levels in years at local reservoirs.
“Things are looking pretty good,” said Stuart Reitz, the director of the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station.
Last week, every reservoir that feeds water into the canals, dikes and ditches to serve the county’s agriculture industry were nearly full.
Warm Springs Reservoir was 98% full while Beulah was at 97%. Bully Creek was at 97% full last week and Owyhee Reservoir is 78% full.
Those levels stand in stark contrast to the spring of 2022. In early April 2022, the Malheur County Court declared a drought emergency and Warm Springs Reservoir, for example, was only 15% full.
The plentiful water means the risk of an early turnoff, a reality faced last year by customers of the Owyhee Irrigation District, is gone.
The Owyhee Irrigation District set its 2023 allotment at 4-acre feet last week. An acre foot of water is enough water to cover an acre 1 foot deep.
In 2021 the district cut its allotment to 3-acre feet and, early in the 2022 season, slashed the allotment to 2.1-acre feet. About 35,000 acres of farmland rely on the Owyhee Reservoir.
Runoff into the Owyhee Reservoir exceeded expectations. Clancy Flynn, manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District, said about half a million-acre feet of water has flowed into the reservoir so far. During a normal year, water managers expect between 350,000 to 400,000-acre feet of water flowing into the reservoir.
Last year at about this time 210,000-acre feet of water had spilled into the reservoir.
Flynn said the last time the Owyhee Reservoir was 78% full was 2020.
“Everybody is definitely thankful we have a lot better year ahead of us. It feels good,” said Flynn.
Reitz said the upcoming growing and harvest season “looks promising.”
“Uniformly, across the different crops and different fields we have enough water to make the whole season work,” said Reitz.
“This area is a desert. If you don’t have water, you don’t have anything. But you can grow any crop around here if you have the water,” said local onion farmer Bruce Corn, who serves on the Owyhee Irrigation District Board.
Corn said the positive water forecast “means you can have a normal cropping pattern.”
Reitz said farmers decide what crops to plant based on projections of water supply.
Early on in the spring the water outlook was not as favorable as it is now, said Reitz.
“Everyone had their fingers crossed that it (snowpack) runs off in a good way and so far, it has,” he said.

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

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