Owyhee system almost out of water

The Owyhee Irrigation District is almost out of water, which means many farmers in Eastern Oregon will have their irrigation water shut off two months earlier than normal.
Sean Ellis

Capital Press

Published on August 8, 2014 3:29PM

ONTARIO, Ore. — The Owyhee Irrigation District is almost out of water, which means many farmers in Eastern Oregon will run out of water roughly two months earlier than normal.

The district, which services 120,000 acres of irrigated land, only has 7,000 acre-feet of usable storage water left and that will only last several more days.

“It’s getting real close,” said farmer Bruce Corn, a member of the OID’s board of directors. “Only a few areas in the upper part of the district have any water at this point.”

OID Manager Jay Chamberlin said only about 1,500 acres are getting any water now. “All the rest are dry.”

OID officials had hoped the system would still have water until Aug. 1, and they exceeded that expectation. But half the system went dry two weeks before that.

Three straight years of drought conditions and below-average snowpack have left farmers in this area in a tough spot.

Farmers on the system are allotted 4 acre-feet of water in a normal year, and they can purchase excess water when it’s there. But to stretch this year’s meager water supply, OID officials reduced the 2014 allotment to 1.7 acre-feet.

And now, farmers here are out of water two months earlier than normal and there certainly won’t be any excess water to purchase.

“This year has been a struggle all the way around, all year,” Chamberlin said. “This area is really being hit hard.”

Rainstorms that have caused flooding on the Idaho side of the border have avoided Eastern Oregon.

“We can’t hardly buy a drop of rain here,” Chamberlin said. “If it wasn’t for bad luck, we wouldn’t have any.”

Farmers in the area knew it was going to be a tight water year and many left ground idle, switched some crops to drip irrigation systems or planted crops that require less water.

“There’s definitely been ground left idle this year and a lot of grain went in instead of … crops that would take more water,” said dairyman and OID board member Frank Ausman.

Ausman normally plants about 200 acres of corn but only planted 50 this year. He planted the rest in oats and beardless barley, which require less water.

“They got one drink this year. I saved all the water for my alfalfa and the little bit of corn I put in,” he said.

Chamberlin said growers have done what they can — some have completely changed their crop rotations — but some are still going to be severely impacted.

“Some guys will get by fairly well, but others are going to get hit really, really hard,” he said.

The Owyhee reservoir system usually ends the season with about 500,000 acre-feet of usable storage water, but will end the 2014 season with none.

That means farmers will be completely dependent on good winter snowpack for 2015.

“We definitely have our fingers crossed,” Ausman said. “It’s pretty hard to farm without water.”


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