The early morning sun shines across Lake Owyhee near the Owyhee Dam in June. Area reservoirs, like the Owyhee, are showing low water levels but a robust winter weather pattern could help with the long-term water outlook. (The Enterprise/ANGELINA KATSANIS).

VALE – The new year is starting out with a shortage of water critical for the region’s agriculture industry, and officials are unsure if enough snow will amass to catch up.

Malheur County’s farms and ranches rely on seasonal snowpack and runoff to boost reservoir levels.

The four main local reservoirs – Warm Springs, Beulah, Bully Creek and Owyhee – that propel the agriculture industry in the spring are now either nearly empty or low in terms of water storage.

As of last week, the Owyhee Reservoir was 16% of capacity while Bully Creek was 19% full, Beulah was 15% full, and Warm Springs Reservoir stood at 5%.

As gloomy as those statistics are, they’ve been worse. In late 2018, Bully Creek and Warm Springs reservoirs were at 3% while Beulah was at 11% and Owyhee Reservoir was at 32%.

Jay Chamberlin, manager of the Nyssa-based Owyhee Irrigation District, said he typically likes to see the Owyhee between 35% and 40% full this time of year.

The reservoir is “unique” he said because “we have the availability to store a lot more.”

Last week, the snow water equivalent – a measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to assess the amount of liquid water contained in snowpack – looked encouraging for the Malheur and Owyhee basins. Those two basins furnish local reservoirs with the majority of their water.

The snow water equivalent for the Malheur was 87% of normal while the snow water equivalent for the Owyhee was 111% of normal.

Yet those numbers can be deceiving, said Chamberlin.

“Those percentages are based on right now. Say January comes along and we don’t get any more storm activity. That will all go away,” he said.

While recent snowfall proved to be a good sign for water managers, there is still a long way to go to relieve drought conditions.

“We have a pretty big hole to fill,” said Chamberlin.

Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisory hydrologist for the National Resources Conservation Service, said one or two snowstorms will not push the region out of drought conditions or quickly charge area reservoirs.

“The take-home point is it will take a multiple series of storms, a slow runoff and cooler spring, and adequate precipitation to help us recover from drought,” said Oviatt. 

Long-term drought conditions have persisted. The county earned a drought declaration from the state last summer. Much of the county was in moderate to severe drought much of the year.

For the growing season, such conditions could mean fewer acres planted, lower yields and possible rationing of irrigation water.

At stake is the viability of such local staple crops as onions, an $80 million industry.

According to 2017 federal statistics, the total market value of agriculture products sold in the county was $353 million. More than 170,000 acres in the county are irrigated.

Predicting how much snow will fall and when is a gamble, but officials note that, based on usual weather patterns, the local area may see more moisture in the coming months.

The Pacific Northwest is in a La Niña weather pattern, which “usually favors cooler and wetter than normal” conditions, said

Korri Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boise.

“We’ve had below normal precipitation with La Niña, but more often than not it is above normal precipitation,” said Anderson.

La Niña is a complicated weather condition that occurs because of deviations in ocean temperatures.

La Niña, though, may not solve the region’s water problems, said Oviatt.

That’s because La Niña may have more impact in the extreme north or northwest part of Oregon than in Malheur County, he said.

“To get to our region, we need to really get pulses coming up from California,” said Oviatt.

However, he says the weather patterns are encouraging.

“We saw it early with a few of those storms and that did help us get off to a good start,” said Oviatt.

Chamberlin said while water levels are low in area reservoirs, it’s not “time to panic.”

“Usually, December is when we start building snow,” said Chamberlin.

The Owyhee watershed covers about 250 square miles, he said, and a lot – both good and bad in terms of water and runoff – can occur.

“The Owyhee is weird. When we do well it seems like everyone else isn’t. It is just different. It’s a high desert drainage and is very unpredictable,” said Chamberlin.

Last summer’s extended heat wave didn’t help the long-term water outlook, said Chamberlin.

“It was so hot for so long, the yields were down. So, we have to have water for multiple reasons. The range guys need it for grass and we need it for streamflow and right into irrigation,” said Chamberlin.

Last summer 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.

The next two months will be critical in terms of water outlook for farmers, said Chamberlin.

“We are trying to be optimistic,” he said.

According to 2017 federal statistics, the total market value of agriculture products sold in the county was $353 million. More than 170,000 acres in the county are irrigated.

Predicting how much snow will fall and when is a gamble, but officials note that, based on usual weather patterns, the local area may see more moisture in the coming months.

The Pacific Northwest is in a La Niña weather pattern, which “usually favors cooler and wetter than normal” conditions, said Korri Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boise.

“We’ve had below normal precipitation with La Niña, but more often than not it is above normal precipitation,” said Anderson.

La Niña is a complicated weather condition that occurs because of deviations in ocean temperatures.

La Niña, though, may not solve the region’s water problems, said Oviatt.

That’s because La Niña may have more impact in the extreme north or northwest part of Oregon than in Malheur County, he said.

“To get to our region, we need to really get pulses coming up from California,” said Oviatt.

However, he says the weather patterns are encouraging.

“We saw it early with a few of those storms and that did help us get off to a good start,” said Oviatt.

Chamberlin said while water levels are low in area reservoirs, it’s not “time to panic.”

“Usually, December is when we start building snow,” said Chamberlin.

The Owyhee watershed covers about 250 square miles, he said, and a lot – both good and bad in terms of water and runoff – can occur.

“The Owyhee is weird. When we do well it seems like everyone else isn’t. It is just different. It’s a high desert drainage and is very unpredictable,” said Chamberlin.

Last summer’s extended heat wave didn’t help the long-term water outlook, said Chamberlin.

“It was so hot for so long, the yields were down. So, we have to have water for multiple reasons. The range guys need it for grass and we need it for streamflow and right into irrigation,” said Chamberlin.

Last summer 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.

The next two months will be critical in terms of water outlook for farmers, said Chamberlin.

“We are trying to be optimistic,” he said.

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

Previous coverage:

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

Low reservoir levels in Malheur County signal dismal irrigation season

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