Owyhee Project water supply outlook worsens

Onions are planted in a field near Nyssa, Ore., March 5. Farmers in the region are bracing for another meager water supply year.

ONTARIO, Ore. — Farmers in Eastern Oregon and Southwestern Idaho who get their irrigation water from the Owyhee Project are preparing for another bleak water year.

The annual irrigation allotment for those 1,800 farms was slashed from the usual 4 acre-feet to 1.7 acre-feet last year and the water was shut off two months earlier than normal.

Farmers in this region said 2014 was the worst water year they can remember, but 2015 could be just as bad, or worse.

“It just doesn’t look good at all,” said Malheur County farmer Bruce Corn, a member of the Owyhee Irrigation District’s board of directors. “It’s shaping up to be exactly the same scenario (as 2014) at this point.”

The project supplies water to 118,000 acres of irrigated land, most of it in Malheur County, Oregon, and some around Homedale and Marsing in Idaho.

OID Manager Jay Chamberlin said the water situation could be worse than 2014.

He recently flew over the basin and said there is no mid-elevation snow left.

“There’s just no snow,” he said. “If there’s anything, it’s at the very top of the mountains, which we’ll never see.”

The Owyhee Reservoir was 24 percent full at the end of February, with 170,000 acre-feet of storage water. That’s more than the 127,000 acre-feet on the same date last year, but it’s well below normal.

There was 303,000 acre-feet of storage available at the end of February in 2013 and 549,000 acre-feet in 2012.

Because there is no more snow in the basin to replenish the reservoir, farmers could end up with even less water this season, Chamberlin said.

Basin-wide snowpack was close to normal at the end of December but rain mixed with warm temperatures washed it away. As a result, river in-flows to the reservoir peaked at 7,000 cubic feet per second between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

In-flows as of March 4 were at a depleted 300 cfs, well below the 2,500 to 3,000 cfs typical for this time of year, Chamberlin said.

“We could come up even shorter than we did a year ago,” Chamberlin said. “Everything seems to be working against us.”

Farmers in the region left about 20 percent of total farm land idle last season and planted more crops that use less water.

Farmers in the area have been planting a lot of cereal crops the past couple of weeks because they will finish about the first part of July and use less water, said Bill Buhrig, an Oregon State University cropping systems extension agent in Malheur County.

“We’re running out of time to get things turned around,” he said. “It’s a feeling of resignation.”

The best thing that could happen for farmers now is for the region to receive some timely spring rains, which would reduce demand for reservoir storage water, Chamberlin said.

“If we don’t get those, like we didn’t get them last year, it’s going to make for a tough water season for us,” he said.

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