Owyhee Irrigation water supply rapidly declining
ONTARIO, Ore. — It’s crunch time for Eastern Oregon farmers who get their water from the Owyhee Irrigation District.
Growers are using between 2,000-2,200 acre-feet of water from the system per day and at that pace, the water will run out by early August. The district serves more than 120,000 acres.
Many farmers have already used their allotment of 1.7 acre-feet, which is well short of the 4 acre-feet growers normally get from the OID.
“From here on out, it’s going to be pretty tough going,” said OID Manager Jay Chamberlin. “By the middle of July, probably three-fourths of the system will be out of water.”
A combination of drought conditions and poor winter snowpack make this one of the worst water years in recent memory for farmers on the system.
“In 42 years of farming, I’ve never seen it this tough,” said Nyssa farmer Paul Skeen.
In an attempt to stretch the meager water supply as far as possible, the OID board reduced growers’ annual allotment to 1.7 acre-feet in April.
Growers planned for the shortage, idling ground to save the water for high-value crops like onions, switching to drip irrigation and planting crops that use less water.
Many farmers also switched some of their high-water crops to the lower parts of the Owyhee system where there is access to supplemental water from the Snake River.
“Growers are doing all they can to manage through this,” Chamberlin said. “But they’re really starting to run out of options. There’s just not that much water left.”
As more farmers use up their 1.7 acre-foot allotment, that will slow water demand down, and the hope is that the water will last until the first part of August, said farmer Bruce Corn, an OID board member.
But, he added, “I don’t think we can accurately say for sure when it will run dry.”
Chamberlin said many farmers adapted to the dry conditions but some did not, holding out until the last moment in hopes the water situation would improve. Many of those folks in the latter situation are running out of water right now.
A decent number of growers will not have enough water to finish their crops, Chamberlin said. “I’m afraid there are going to be quite a few growers in that situation.”
Corn said the situation would be worse if it weren’t for the relatively cool weather in the region so far this season.
“It’s been kind of cool up to this point,” he said. “That lowers the water demand a little bit.”