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Rains help east Oregon water picture

Sean Ellis
The water supply situation in eastern Oregon has improved a little because of a series of spring rainstorms, but it's still dire in certain parts.

ONTARIO, Ore. — A series of spring rainstorms will enable Owyhee Irrigation District officials to deliver more water to eastern Oregon farmers this year.

Farmers who get their water from the system typically get 4 acre-feet each season, but two straight years of drought and meager snowpack this winter had caused district officials to reduce that amount to 1.5 acre-feet.

After a lengthy debate during a water supply meeting April 15, district officials agreed to increase this year’s allotment to 1.7 acre-feet.

The rains kept soil moisture levels high enough that district officials were able to hold off on starting the system two weeks later than normal, conserving valuable water, said OID Manager Jay Chamberlin.

District officials planned to start the system April 17.

“The only reason we were able to raise the allotment was because we haven’t turned on the system yet,” Chamberlin said.

He said some people argued for delaying the start of the system even further, but high winds have dried the soil and a string of warm days is pending.

“We felt like we’ve held off for about as long as we can,” Chamberlin said. “It’s time to go.”

While the water supply situation for eastern Oregon farmers has improved, it’s still dire.

The 1.7 acre-foot allotment is still far below what farmers typically get from the district, which services 120,000 acres of irrigated land in eastern Oregon.

The system still only has 193,000 acre-feet of usable water in storage, far below the 500,000 to 600,000 acre-feet that is typical this time of year.

“It’s a little better than it was (but) it’s still going to be a very difficult season,” said farmer Bruce Corn, a member of OID’s board of directors.

Corn said farmers in the region are taking a lot of measures to try to stretch their water, including idling ground and using the water for high-value crops, turning to drip irrigation and planting crops that use less water and finish earlier.

Paul Skeen planted twice as many peas this year and cut back on beans and sugar beets, which use more water and need it longer.

The water he saves by doing that will be used for his onions, a high-water crop and one of the area’s cash crops.

“We have a lot of money wrapped up in onions,” Skeen said. “You’re going to take care of what you have the most money into.”

About 52,000 acres of ground on the upper part of the Owyhee system is totally dependent on storage water. A lot of ground on the lower parts will have some supplemental water that is pumped from the Snake River.

The seriousness of the tight water situation depends on where the ground is, said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa.

“It’s more specific to which water delivery area you are in,” he said. “If you’re in the wrong place, it’s extreme.”



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