Treasure Valley water supply situation bleak
Farmers in eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho are faced with a third consecutive sparse water year and snowpack levels aren't helping.
ONTARIO, Ore. — There is very little carryover water in most reservoirs in the Treasure Valley area and the region’s farmers are depending on above-normal snowpack levels to prevent another tight water year in 2014.
But for now, the snowpack isn’t cooperating and the concern is rising.
“I’m very, very nervous about it,” said Nyssa, Ore., farmer Paul Skeen. “It’s a huge issue and farmers are very concerned.”
Like many other farmers in eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho, which are separated in parts by the Snake River, Skeen grows onions, which are a high-water crop.
Unless snowpack levels rise significantly in the next few months, farmers in the area could be faced with a tight water supply for a third straight season.
“In 41 years of farming … I’ve never worried about it like I am this year, and I’m under one of the better water rights,” Skeen said.
Reservoirs on both sides of the river have less carryover water now than they did this time last year, said Jay Chamberlin, who manages the Owyhee Irrigation District in Oregon.
The situation is worse in eastern Oregon, where the percentage of usable storage in all the reservoirs is in single digits, he said. For example, in a normal year, the entire Owyhee system has about 500,000 acre-feet of carryover water at this time, but right now that total is 58,000 acre-feet.
Exacerbating the situation, snowpack in the basin is about 56 percent of average and the basin needs about 150 percent of average snowpack this winter for reservoirs to come close to filling, Chamberlin said.
“We’re not in good shape at all,” he said. “We’re greatly concerned.”
Farmers in the area are used to dry seasons and the region’s reservoir systems normally provide about a two-year buffer in the case of consecutive dry years, Chamberlin said.
“What’s unusual is to deplete all of the storage and possibly have a short water year for a third straight year,” he said. “That’s extremely unusual for us.”
Most of Idaho’s mint, another high-water crop, is grown in southwestern Idaho, as are half the region’s onions. While the situation on the Idaho side is not quite as bleak as it is in eastern Oregon, it’s still not good.
“I think most water users who are on the Boise River system are pretty concerned about the lack of snowpack we have right now,” said Drew Eggers, who grows mint, corn and winter wheat. “The majority of us used the majority of our carryover water for the 2013 crop.”
Eggers said farmers’ hopes that a good snowpack year would get them through 2014 are fading.
“The way things are now, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get an abundant amount of snowpack,” he said. “I suspect it will be another tight water year on the Boise River system.”