Snowpack and stream flow data recorded in Oregon this winter indicate farmers are in for a dry year, with irrigation water tight, unless major snow storms hit the state soon.
The USDA’s Natural Resource and Conservation Service reports the snowpack is well below average for this time of year in a broad north to south swath in the center of the state. Surveys conducted by the NRCS show the snow water equivalent, or the amount of water contained in the snowpack, is at 30 percent of normal or lower in the Klamath, Rogue-Umpqua and Lake County-Goose Lake basins.
Other basins have less than half the stored snow water they usually have, according to the NRCS. Conditions are better in the northeast sector of Oregon, where Umatilla-Walla Walla-Willow basin is at 71 percent of normal and the Grande Ronde-Powder-Burnt-Imnaha basin is at 74 percent.
A dry fall followed by sparse snowfall into January is responsible for the situation, said Julie Koeberle, an NRCS hydrologist based in Portland. There’s still time for water conditions to improve this winter, she said, but it will take major storms to make up the deficit.
“It’s early, but every day it’s dry and sunny, it counts against it,” Koeberle said.
The outlook is a concern to farmers, said Steve Johnson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District.
One dry year can be offset by drawing down reservoirs for needed irrigation water, Johnson said, but the problem “really raises its ugly head” if the following year is dry as well.
“If you start pulling on the reservoirs to lower levels than usual, it puts bigger pressure on having a bigger snowpack the next winter,” he said.
When water is limited, farmers with the most recent or “junior” water rights are last in line for water. North of Redmond, specialty onion and carrot seed growers, highly dependent on irrigation, hold junior water rights on the Deschutes and Crooked rivers, said Mike Britton, manager of the North Unit Irrigation District.
In a drought situation, the district’s farmers could lose their right to draw the natural flow of the two rivers, and have to rely on water stored in Wickiup Reservoir.
“In a dry year we would really draw the reservoir down,” Britton said. Luckily, the reservoir is filling at a good pace this winter, he said, but a heavy snowpack the following year would be needed to replenish water used this summer.
Koeberle, the NRCS hydrologist, said a multi-agency meeting will be held in February to discuss water conditions.