Wickiup Reservoir, which holds back water for use by the North Unit Irrigation District, is at a record low level for this time of year, leading to renewed concerns that farmers in Jefferson County, Ore., will need to restrict water usage again for the third straight year.
As of Wednesday, the reservoir was 48% full, according to the Bureau of Reclamation website.
On the same date a year ago Wickiup was 60% full. On average, Wickiup is 85% full by this time of year.
Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, estimates that Wickiup will be at about 110,000 acre-feet to 120,000 acre-feet on the first of April, which would be the lowest on record to start the irrigation season. One acre foot of water is the amount of water to cover an acre in one foot of water, or about 325,851 gallons.
“Wickiup is indeed in really poor shape this year,” said Gorman. “North Unit is going to be short of water again this year.”
When Wickiup can’t fill to capacity, water managers are forced to dial back the amount of water delivered to farmers, who in turn must leave a percentage of their fields fallow. Over the past two growing seasons, farmers in Jefferson County were leaving 30-40% of their fields bare due to the water shortage.
Water is currently being discharged from the reservoir at a rate of 106 cubic feet per second to comply with U.S. Fish & Wildlife regulations to protect the Oregon spotted frog. More water for wildlife has resulted in less water for farmers.
“The snowpack for 2021 got off to a good start and we are all hopeful that it will continue,” said Marty Richards, North Unit’s chairman. “But I would anticipate a shortage due to multiple years of drought and one of the lowest levels for Wickiup at the end of the season.”
It will take time for the situation to change, said Richards.
“Even with average or better snow and precipitation, my sense is we will be no better off than last year,” said Richards. “Going forward my concern is that it will take multiple good years to recover from this drought.”
Richards added that as the water shortage continues, he worries about the potential for farms to go out of business as well as the environmental costs, including degraded soils.
Elsewhere in the region, Prineville Reservoir is 35% full and Ochoco Reservoir is 16% full.
On a more positive note, the snowpack in the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River region is 100% of normal. Water year-to-date precipitation is 93% of normal. However, this year’s snowpack will have little effect on reservoir levels in 2021. Due to Central Oregon’s porous soil, it can take a year or more for melted snowpack to reach this area’s reservoirs.