ONTARIO, Ore. — The 200 or so farmers who packed the Boulevard Grange Hall outside Ontario March 4 for an annual water supply update came there expecting to hear bad news.
“This year you will understand the value of water,” said Jay Chamberlin, who manages the Owyhee Irrigation District, which services 120,000 acres of irrigated land in eastern Oregon.
Snowpack levels in other nearby basins in Idaho have improved significantly in the past month. But average snowpack in the Owyhee drainage, which is high desert and stretches much further south, is below 50 percent of average.
The Owyhee reservoir system only had 130,000 acre-feet of usable storage as of March 4, well below the 30-year average of almost 500,000 acre-feet.
“Compared with where we should be based on the 30-year average, we’re low; we’re very low,” Chamberlin told the farmers, who grow a lot of high-water crops like onions, corn, sugar beets and potatoes.
Based on what is now in storage, farmers are looking at being allotted 1 acre-foot of water this season, 25 percent of what they get in a normal water year.
That has raised the level of concern to a height not reached in recent memory, said Mike Petterson, who has farmed in the area for almost 50 years.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said shortly after leaving the meeting. “It’s going to be a bad year. It’s going to be tough.”
Petterson said it takes about 3 acre-feet to grow onions. If farmers in the area can only look forward to receiving 1 acre-foot, “That’s not even worth planting.”
A series of rainstorms that has improved the water supply outlook on the Idaho side has done little to improve the situation in eastern Oregon, said Bruce Corn, a member of the Owhyee Irrigation District’s board of directors.
“The Idaho watershed has changed a lot but the Owyhee is still not looking good at all,” said Corn, who grows sugar beets, onions, wheat, corn and alfalfa.
The rains have helped with soil moisture, Chamberlin said, but they will do little to fill the reservoirs.
“It takes snow in the drainage to (put) water in the reservoirs,” he said. “Rains alone won’t do it.”
The system needs about another 200,000 acre-feet of water for farmers to receive a 3 acre-foot allotment, Corn said.
It’s too late in the year for snowpack levels to catch up, he said, but some heavy rains could make a difference. However, they need to happen quickly because there is only about four weeks left before onions and other crops need to be planted.
“Right now, we’re running out of days,” Corn said. “It’s going to take some real sustained, above-average rains now to get what we need for the growers.”