Stuart Reitz, Malheur County extension agent, surveys a field of shallots for heat damage last week. (ANGELINA KATSANIS/The Enterprise)

VALE – If you are an onion plant, the Treasure Valley is usually a good place to grow.

That’s because during a typical growing season, the temperature remains warm and stable during the day and then cools down at night. That cycle helps onions grow and mature.

This year, that cycle is in trouble as a heat wave continues to blister Malheur County and potentially create long-term problems for the area’s $80 million onion industry.

“The nights are not getting as cool as we need them. That is what makes the Treasure Valley so great is you get the heat units you need in the daytime and at night it cools off,” said Tim Gluch, the general manager at Vale’s Willowcreek Produce.

The high temperatures aren’t helping other crops either.

Hay, wheat and corn all suffer when the heat index climbs and relief fails to arrive when the sun goes down.

“Even something like corn doesn’t enjoy it when it is this hot. Plants physiologically shut down. They have a reduced window during these hot days to grow,” said Stuart Reitz, Malheur County extension agent.

The smoke lingering in the county from forest fires in southern and central Oregon is not helping either, Gluch said.

“It doesn’t let the natural UV rays come in and let the plants grow,” said Gluch.

Reitz said in many onion fields, growth has been slow. Often, he said, by mid-July onions in a field will exhibit a full canopy, where the leafs are spread out across onion beds and across rows of the plant.

That isn’t the case in some fields, said Reitz.

“Right now, there are still a lot of fields where you have very small plants so you have more exposed soil. The sun beating down and the irrigation demand in a field like that are different than a field where there is some shade,” said Reitz.

Jeff Baer, a Vale-area onion producer and owner of Willowcreek Produce, said the long stretch of hot weather is already hitting some onion fields hard.

“The crop has been stressed. We’ve seen some bigger onions with some scald on them,” said Baer.

The county is still in its growing season for many crops so yield estimates are, at best, fragmentary.

If the heat continues, though, yields on all crops will suffer.

“The expectation for wheat will be kind of reduced yields and a lot of that has been the high temperatures and things not growing like they should. Onions, same thing. Once it crosses 90 degrees, they are shutting down,” said Reitz.

Reitz said the climate could shift before the end of the growing season.

“Maybe the weather will turn and it will be nice,” said Reitz.

As the heat continues to scorch the Treasure Valley, local reservoirs are running low.

Last week, Beulah Reservoir was 24% full, Warm Springs Reservoir was 19% full while the Owyhee Reservoir was 33% full. Bully Creek Reservoir was the best off at 43% full.

While Bully Creek Reservoir will most likely be able to provide its users with water until October – the usual cutoff date for water allotments – the outlook for the other reservoir users isn’t as encouraging.

“This hot weather, it was not expected and we didn’t have any idea it would come so early. It has taken a toll on us,” said Jay Chamberlin, manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District.

The Owyhee Irrigation District already slashed its water allocation – from 4 acre feet to 3 acre feet – for the year in the spring in what Chamberlin termed as a “conservative outlook.”

An acre foot of water is enough water to flood an acre 1-foot deep.

“We thought if we had a normal year we could make it a good length of the season. This weather isn’t giving us a break. It has taken more water than anticipated,” said Chamberlin.

Chamberlin said he doesn’t think there will be another cut in the water allotment but he can’t guarantee it.

“It isn’t out of the question. We still have July and August to go. We will watch this month by month,” said Chamberlin.

Reitz said the amount of water available for irrigation is crucial but so is how the water is used once it hits a field.

“On a more theoretical level, the growers need to pay attention to what each field really needs. I know this is complicated but simply irrigating, if you throw too much water out on a field, it just sits there and the plants can’t breathe,” said Reitz.

Chamberlin said that “people don’t realize the consequences that comes with these kinds of temperatures.”

“This has been a tough year. We have not had a break this whole year. Been really stressful, seems like everything is taking so much effort to get things done,” said Chamberlin.

Ty King, manager of the Vale Irrigation District, said water availability this year was “bad.”

King said the Vale Oregon Irrigation District will most likely begin to shut off water to farmers in early to mid August.

“It will all depend on demand. We usually stop around the first or the 15th of October,” said King.

Gluch said the duration of the unusually high temperatures will be critical for the harvest.

“The onions, as long as they are not stressed, they will be OK. But in the long run it’s hard to tell. We haven’t seen this before, that I remember, this length of heat and this hot,” said Gluch.

The rapid decline in water at area reservoirs doesn’t bode well, said Jered Hoshaw, state watermaster for Malheur County.

“Stored water is being used up quickly due to the excessive heat and dry conditions. It appears most of the storage projects will have little to no carryover for next year,” said Hoshaw.

The county already earned a drought declaration from the state earlier in the summer but how the drought is impacting area ranchers and farmers remains uneven.

“Malheur County ranges from moderate drought to severe drought, depending on where you are in the county. Vale is in moderate drought,” said Hoshaw.

Hoshaw said the hope now is Mother Nature will deliver a fierce winter.

“Fingers crossed the upcoming winter brings good precipitation and snowpack as well as good spring runoff,” said Hoshaw.

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

Previous coverage:

Malheur County farmers, water managers cast a wary eye on the water outlook

Low reservoir levels in Malheur County signal dismal irrigation season

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