Sean Ellis/Capital Press
NYSSA, Ore. — The water supply situation for farmers in Eastern Oregon who depend on the Owyhee Project is expected to be as bad as last year and maybe worse.
“The situation is probably a little worse than last year,” said Bruce Corn, a farmer and member of the Owyhee Irrigation District’s board of directors. “If we have a super hot summer, it could be much worse.”
The Owyhee Project, which supplies irrigation water for 1,800 farms and 118,000 acres of irrigated land in Eastern Oregon and part of Southwestern Idaho, plans to start flowing water into the system April 20.
The start-up date is three days later than last year and more than two weeks later than some years.
An Easter storm that dropped up to three-quarters of an inch of rain on some areas allowed the board to delay the start-up date, with the hope that the available water will stretch further into the summer, said OID Manager Jay Chamberlin.
The OID board this week set the final 2015 water allotment for its patrons at 1.5 acre-feet. That is up from the 1.3 acre-foot allotment it tentatively set last month but below last year’s 1.7 acre-foot allotment and far below the normal allotment of 4 acre feet.
Despite sharply reducing the 2014 allotment, the system stopped delivering water in August, two months earlier than normal, and many growers ran out of water in July.
In an effort to save water for high-value crops such as onions, farmers in the region left an estimated 15 to 20 percent of farm land fallow last year and they also planted more crops that require less water.
Farmers will get creative in their copping choices again this year, said Corn, who will plant more peas, a low-water crop, and less corn, a high-water crop.
Onion farmer Paul Skeen, who will plant more wheat and peas and less sugar beets to stretch his water, said farmers in the area are becoming smarter about how they handle their water, including turning to drip irrigation.
“People are really concentrating on trying to do the best job with the water they have,” said Skeen, who put 40 percent of his onion acres on a drip system this year.
The 201,000 acre-feet of available water stored in the Owyhee Reservoir is far below normal for this time of year but close to last year’s amount, Chamberlin said.
However, there is virtually no snow in the Owyhee basin and stream flows are way below last year’s level.
River in-flows into the reservoir are at 320 cubic feet per second, down from about 700 at this time last year and well below the normal 4,000 during a good water year, Chamberlin said.
Corn said the poor stream flow forecast is one of the reasons this year’s allotment was set lower than last year, despite the comparable reservoir storage situation.
“We just don’t anticipate the river flows being very good at all … because we have virtually no snowpack,” he said.