Published Oct. 20, 2018
As winter approaches, the evidence suggesting another low-snow year for Central Oregon and much of the Pacific Northwest is mounting.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center’s most recent update to the winter outlook notes a 70 percent to 75 percent chance of a weak El Niño weather pattern developing over the Pacific Ocean in the next couple of months. For much of Oregon, this may mean warmer temperatures and less snowfall.
“It doesn’t mean you’re not going to see winter; it just means you’re going to see temperatures that are on average higher than normal,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center.
El Niño is the name given to a climate pattern that involves warmer-than-normal sea water and atmospheric changes in the central Pacific Ocean. El Niño patterns affect regions of North America in different ways, although they’re known for bringing less snow than usual to Central Oregon, said Marilyn Lohmann, hydrologist for the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office.
In a region mired in drought after a series of low-snow winters, another dry, warm winter could exacerbate problems throughout the Deschutes River Basin for farmers and fish.
“I think there’s some anxious folks, to be honest,” said Mike Britton, general manager of North Unit Irrigation District.
Halpert said the Climate Prediction Center, which provides data and predictions designed to help communities prepare for climate risks, looks at a variety of indicators when predicting an El Niño event, including surface and subsurface water temperatures and the location of rainfall in the tropics. While the rainfall location hasn’t yet squared with what the center would expect during an El Niño year, the water temperature is approaching the threshold that would suggest a weak El Niño, he said.
The Climate Prediction Center is planning to update its El Niño prediction in mid-November, when some of the climate indicators will be more settled, Halpert said.
If it does come to fruition, there’s no telling precisely how an El Niño pattern would affect Central Oregon. History suggests it will cause a milder winter than normal.
Bend receives an average of about 31 inches of snow between October and April, Lohmann said. During 11 years where a weak El Niño system was present, the city averaged 24.2 inches, about 22 percent less than a typical winter.
Lohmann added that snowfall in the 11 years the weather service examined varied dramatically. Totals ranged from 4.8 inches to 49 inches during weak El Niño years.
The last weak El Niño, which occurred during the 2014-15 winter, was one of Central Oregon’s driest winters to date, with just 8 inches of snow falling in Bend all year, virtually none of which lasted until spring, Lohmann said. By contrast, the El Niño pattern that occurred the following winter was much stronger globally, although it brought a roughly average amount of snow to Bend and Central Oregon.
“Each one is different, and there’s a lot of other atmospheric things in play, as well,” Lohmann said.
The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting warmer-than-usual weather in Oregon and Washington, with a roughly equal chance of being drier-than-normal or wetter-than-normal, Halpert said.
Central Oregon’s snowpack is susceptible to small fluctuations in temperature, which can make the difference between precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, Lohmann said.
“It just takes a few degrees, especially in the mountains,” she said.
Central Oregon saw significantly less snow than usual last winter and spring, which left the region in bad shape once irrigation season began. Wickiup Reservoir, Central Oregon’s largest, reached its lowest level in 60 years just months after filling to capacity, thanks to irrigation demand and a lack of precipitation throughout the year.
Water levels at several large reservoirs in the Crooked River Basin also dropped well below their seasonal averages.
North Unit Irrigation District, which relies heavily on Wickiup Reservoir, sets allotment totals for farmers during dry years, but still left Wickiup at 1 percent full by the end of irrigation season, Britton said. If there’s another dry year, Britton said, more farmers could leave portions of their fields unsown to conserve water.
“We’re starting to see a lot of fallow ground,” Britton said.
A light snowpack could hurt fish living in Central Oregon’s rivers. Kimberley Priestley, senior policy analyst for WaterWatch of Oregon, said the Crooked River is more snow-driven than the Deschutes, making it more vulnerable to a single dry winter. Low levels on the Crooked River could cause problems for redband trout, steelhead and other species living in the river.
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Water issues downriver in Jefferson County affect those upriver, too, impacting the economy, recreation and food
"Without water - no farms - no food."
With that simple statement, Jefferson County Commissioner Mae Huston emphasizes the importance of irrigation water for farms near Madras, in Jefferson County, where the seed industry, along with other crops, are the lifeblood of the rural community. Without adequate water supplies for farmers, she says the City of Madras would be crippled. Farms would shut down. Businesses would close. People would be forced to move, and as she put it, "Madras could become a ghost town."
As you drive along Highway 97 you'll see fields of carrot seed crops on both sides of the highway near Madras. As harvest time approaches, I spoke with several farmers, seed industry representatives, irrigation managers and others to get a sense of how important irrigation and the Deschutes River is to the region and to the economy of Central Oregon.
Agriculture: An economic engine in Central Oregon
While the Kentucky Blue Grass and parsley seed crops represent a sizeable economic driver for the region, the size and scope of the carrot seed industry cannot be over-emphasized. The crop, which takes 13 months to grow and harvest, is critical to Jefferson County.
"We supply 40 percent of the world's need for carrot seeds," says Mike Weber, managing partner for Central Oregon Seeds, Inc., located near the Madras airport. As I tour the plant, Weber shows a rack of seed that will be exported to other countries, worth millions.
Janet Brown, Jefferson county's representative for Economic Development in Central Oregon, says, "When you grow almost half of the world's carrot seed and about 75 percent of the U.S. carrot seed, that's a huge economic engine not only for Jefferson County and Central Oregon, but the world." In total, she estimates there's a $30 to $35 million ripple effect the carrot seed industry brings to Jefferson County.
"These seeds wind up in Holland, the Middle East, Japan and other countries where eventually carrots wind up on the dinner table," says Weber.
Michael Kirsch at Madras Farms takes pride in knowing he helps feed the world. "It's neat to know that you as a farmer are producing something that ends up a long way from where it was grown and ultimately on someone's dinner table."
The combination of warm weather during the day and cool nights make Central Oregon an ideal location for growing carrot seeds. It's the premier growing region for this crop in the world, rivaled only by New Zealand.
But, it's dependent on the Deschutes River and how much seasonal irrigation water it can produce. That's of major concern to those in Jefferson County, as hot weather and dwindling water takes a toll.
The Deschutes is everything
The source for the iconic river, and the irrigation it provides, is Little Lava Lakein the high Cascades, where snowmelt feeds the Deschutes system, eventually winding its way 252 miles north, to the Columbia River. Along the way it's joined by numerous tributaries such as the Fall, Crooked and Metolius Rivers—and others that help sustain water needs for not only farmers, but the diverse recreational and tourism industry that drives the economy in Central Oregon.
Look at current water levels in Wickiup and you'll see narrowing channels and miles of dry land where water covered it as recently as last spring and early summer. Reservoir levels have fallen to 22 percent capacity as of date of publication, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, with several weeks of irrigation needs still ahead.
While the reservoir, built in 1948 for irrigation, has fallen to near 10 percent capacity in other drought years, the red flag is waving for Jefferson County farms and irrigation managers this year.
"First and foremost on my mind is getting through this water year," says Mike Britton, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District, supplying water to Jefferson County. "Our patrons are concerned about the level of Wickiup and how much water is available."
It also concerns EDCO's Janet Brown. "If agriculture were to dwindle without water, we would see storefronts close. You would see a huge impact on farmers and their families and the thousands of farm workers in the area," she says. In total, Jefferson County has about 450 farms, according to Brown.
Conservation becomes key
As water levels dwindle and more water is released during the winter storage months in order to protect the endangered Oregon spotted frog and fish, conservation has become more urgent.
According to Central Oregon Seeds' Weber, carrot seed farmers in Jefferson County have installed costly drip line irrigation systems to save water from evaporation on the thousands of acres growing the seed plant.
The Fox Hollow Ranch southeast of Madras is one farm with drip lines. After obtaining his graduate degree from Georgetown University and working for the Farm Bureau in Washington, D.C., for a decade, Kevin Richards returned to Madras to help operate the family ranch.
"The number one priority and concern for us is water," he says. "The amount of water dictates the crops that can be grown, how much can be grown and whether a farmer can grow a crop on every acre they own. It influences every aspect of our farming operation," he says.
Richards says one reason the carrot seed industry has thrived is because it can be efficiently produced through drip irrigation. "That helps save water, and the opportunity for efficiency is helping drive the industry."
While on-farm conservation measures are critical, so are measures now underway by the eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon.
The Central Oregon Irrigation District is the oldest and largest of those districts, with two canals supplying water to thousands of patrons. With the age of the canals, where evaporation and leakage occurs, modernization in the delivery system has also become critical to saving water, irrigation officials say.
Claims by advocacy groups that up to 50 percent of irrigation water is lost through evaporation and seepage isn't "too far-fetched, keeping in mind the calculated losses include river losses," says Britton of the North Unit Irrigation District. NUID water can travel 120 miles before it gets delivered to farms, he says.
During the past winter, COID completed piping 3020 feet of canal—at a cost of $5 million—in the Brookswood neighborhood of Bend, saving 5 cubic feet of water flow per second, now returned to the river. A cubic foot of water is equal to 7.48 gallons, so 5 cubic feet per second adds up to a lot of water.
"Every drop counts. To put it in perspective, we divert nearly 900 cubic feet per second between our two canals during the peak season," says Shon Rae, deputy managing director. "Our 20-year capital plan estimates between 150 and 200 cfs will be conserved through piping projects."
COID also has a much larger near-term piping project now in the planning stages. A $40 million construction project could start as early as fall of 2019 from Smith Rock to King Way in Redmond, conserving much more water than the Brookswood piping project—an estimated 37 cubic feet per second, according to Rae.
Long term, the irrigation districts are completing watershed plans to improve their delivery systems. Once that's accomplished, they can apply for federal matching funds that could amount to nearly $100 million for modernization, according to Britton, who also heads up the Deschutes Basin Board of Control which comprises Central Oregon's eight irrigation districts.
When environmental groups filed lawsuits, concerned with the health of the endangered Oregon spotted frog, Jefferson County farmers and others became worried if they would receive the water they needed for their crops.
Numerous advocacy and user groups such as the Coalition for the Deschutes, Trout Unlimited of Bend, the irrigation districts and others began encouraging intense collaboration to find solutions that would meet all needs. It wasn't an easy decision, but groups resolved to release more water from Wickiup Reservoir during the winter storage months to save the spotted frog.
Now, 100 cubic feet per second of water is released during the winter months, compared to releases of as low as 25 cfs in past years. For those working to save the frog, it's a beginning, but they note that more water needs to be released during the winter to fully restore the health of the Deschutes River.
"There's been a lot of collaboration and focus on the river due to the Endangered Species Act, exacerbated by the drought conditions we're in," says farmer Richards. "It's the number one priority for having a sustainable solution for all of Central Oregon whether it's recreation, tourism, municipal use or farming."
The collaborative process to seek mutual agreements, he maintains, is showing promise. "A lot of people are at the table and willing to discuss options so there is still water available so it doesn't put farmers like myself out of business."
The collaborative process has also received praise from opposite members of the political spectrum, including Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR2).
Brown at EDCO-Jefferson County agrees the present collaboration is showing promise, but with a warning. "I think people south of us in Bend sometimes think that's just a Jefferson County issue and that they can get it worked out up there. It's not. It's an issue for all of us."
Her warning: "If you want to paddle board on the Deschutes in Bend, if you want to surf the rapids by the Colorado Bridge, you will need water. If we can't all come to the table and agree on the spotted frog issue and let all the users who need water have water, then you won't be able to do some of those things and that will really affect tourism in Bend."
The economic impact of outdoor recreation and tourism also can't be overemphasized. Tourism continues to be the single-largest industry in Central Oregon, employing more than 9,400 people and generating total economic impacts that exceed $1.19 billion annually, according to the Central Oregon Visitors Association.
And, with that economic reality, Brown not only urges more collaboration to seek solutions, but urges everyone who has a stake in the river to avoid lawsuits.
It would appear the irrigation districts and the Coalition for the Deschutes are cooperating. The Coalition and the Deschutes Basin Board of Control recently jointly developed and signed a memorandum entitled: "A Shared Vision for the Deschutes: Working Together so Families, Farms, and Fish can Thrive."
North Unit's Britton says, "There's a long list of issues we contend with on a daily basis, but at the end of the day, it's these crops that put food on the table."
Brown adds, "I think we can get there. Everyone's at the table. If we don't have any more lawsuits and everyone plays nice, then I think we'll get there."
Brian Jennings produces the Great Outdoors and other features for Central Oregon Daily seen on KOHD ABC at 6 pm and KBNZ CBS at 7 pm.
$30 million effort planned in phases over 11 years
August 21, 2018
REDMOND, Ore. - Plans to modernize aging irrigation infrastructure in the Tumalo Irrigation District through piping of canals and laterals have been approved to move forward into construction, following Tuesday’s release of a Finding of No Significant Impact by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in partnership with the irrigation district, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control and the Farmers Conservation Alliance.
The Tumalo Irrigation District Modernization Project will pipe up to 1.9 miles of Tumalo Irrigation District’s canals and 66.9 miles of laterals to improve water conservation, water delivery reliability and public safety. The $30 million project will occur in seven phases over 11 years.
By converting open irrigation ditches into a closed piped system, the project will reduce water loss from canals by up to 48 cubic feet per second (cfs) or 4.9 billion gallons per season.
"Water saved from the project will be permanently protected in the Deschutes River and Tumalo Creek, benefiting fish and wildlife habitat," the NRCS said.
"The project also will deliver water to irrigators in a safer, more efficient manner and reduce energy consumption from pumping," the agency added.
After several years of planning and considering public input through the development of an environmental assessment, NRCS and project sponsors have determined the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment.
The FONSI and other supporting planning documents for this project are available for public view at www.oregonwatershedplans.org.
For further information, contact Tom Makowski, Assistant State Conservationist for Watershed Resources and Planning, Natural Resources Conservation Service at 503-414-3202.
This project is a team effort between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, the Tumalo Irrigation District and theFarmers Conservation Alliance to help Oregon irrigators conserve water, reduce energy consumption, increase irrigation delivery efficiency, improve public safety, and benefit in-stream habitat for threatened and endangered fish species.
Project funding is being provided through the NRCS Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act.
Similar planning efforts are also underway in neighboring irrigation districts. For more information about this and other Central Oregon irrigation modernization efforts, visitwww.oregonwatershedplans.org or visit the NRCS Oregon public notice webpage.
August 7, 2018
By STEPHEN HAMWAY, The Bulletin
BEND, Ore. (AP) — Environmental organizations and irrigation districts hope a new agreement could help discussions about managing flows on the Deschutes River focus more on collaboration than litigation in the future.
The Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which oversees eight irrigation districts that manage water within the Deschutes Basin, and six conservation groups have each signed a memo titled "A Shared Vision for the Deschutes: Working Together so Families, Farms, and Fish can Thrive."
The memo asks all signatories to work together as partners and commits them to a shared vision for the Deschutes River of the future, one with a healthier ecology and enough water to support sustainable agriculture and growing communities.
The agreement has no legal backing, and many of the ideas stem from the 1996 Upper Deschutes Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan. However, Gail Snyder, executive director for the Bend-based environmental group Coalition for the Deschutes and one of the leaders of the shared visioning process, said it represents an effort to get the various entities with a vested interest in water in the Deschutes River, many of whom have very different priorities and motivations, rowing in the same direction.
"There's a lot of baggage, a lot of history," Snyder said. "But all of us are here, to some extent, because irrigation occurred in Central Oregon."
For the irrigation districts, following the memo means finding ways to conserve water wherever possible, including piping canals to reduce evaporation, creating a framework to share water between districts and encouraging farmers to conserve water.
"We really all do have a shared vision, we're just looking at it from different perspectives," said Shon Rae, deputy managing director for the Central Oregon Irrigation District.
While a series of interagency studies and planning on the Deschutes basin have fostered more collaboration between environmental groups and irrigation districts in recent years, that hasn't always been the case. A series of dams and irrigation needs on the Upper Deschutes have caused water to flow at radically different levels during different seasons.
The fluctuation contributes to ecological challenges on the river, including erosion, habitat loss and channel widening, according to Shaun Pigott, president of Deschutes Redbands, a
In perhaps the most infamous battle between irrigation districts and environmental groups, a series of lawsuits on behalf of the Oregon spotted frog led to a 2016 settlement mandating that water levels in parts of the Upper Deschutes can't drop below certain thresholds.
Both Pigott and Snyder said their views on irrigation districts have evolved over time. As Snyder has worked more with the irrigation districts, she said, she has come to understand the role that irrigation plays in the basin, and how best to work to return the river to a more natural state.
"We can't lawsuit our way into the type of change we want to see," Snyder said.
Rae added that the irrigation districts stand to benefit from a more collaborative approach as well. She said environmental groups can help educate farmers and irrigation districts on ways to conserve water and work within Oregon's complex water laws. Furthermore, she added that the partnership will allow them to present a more united front when advocating in Salem for changes to how water in the basin can be allocated.
"We need the environmental groups, and they need us," Rae said.
Some of the work to conserve water is already underway. Mike Britton, general manager of North Unit Irrigation District, said the Madras-based irrigation district is working on an agreement with COID, where North Unit would assist on water-saving capital projects in exchange for receiving some of the water that's saved. North Unit, which relies heavily on stored water, would then release additional water back into the Deschutes River.
"There are always contentious issues, and if we can continue to talk and meet, it's better than running off into corners and pursuing litigation," Britton said.
Published June 8, 2018
A stretch of the Pilot Butte Canal near Juniper Ridge will be getting more protection than some nearby homeowners ever wanted. Central Oregon Irrigation District plans to pipe around it.
Water will be conserved on a leaky stretch of canal. COID will be able to build more pressure for its hydropower downstream. And the canal declared historic in 2016 will be preserved from water damage.
It’s a win for the river and water conservation, but not so much for the nearby homeowners.
Homeowners with property along the stretch of canal nominated it for historic status. One reason was to block COID’s plans to pipe the 1.5 mile-section.
Although it’s basically a rocky ditch, the canal becomes a roiling stream during irrigation season. When the water is flowing, it’s like having a Tumalo Creek in the backyard.
The canal is unquestionably a part of Central Oregon’s history. Irrigation opened up the region to farming and more growth. Construction began on the canal in 1903 and it was completed in 1905. Marks are visible on the basalt where workers carved and blasted out the canal.
But the purpose of the canal was never to provide a water feature. It was to move water from the Deschutes River to farmers. Open, unlined canals lose about half their water.
COID’s new capital improvement plan includes piping around the historic stretch. The alternate route may go along 18th Street in public right of way.
There are many more things that must happen first. There must be permits. The money has to all line up. COID targets the piping to begin in 2020. And there may well be challenges by homeowners who won the battle to declare the canal stretch historic. But they are correctly losing the war to pipe the water.
Published June 6, 2018 at 03:23PM
The Three Sisters Irrigation District will, by 2020, accomplish something similar districts in the region can only dream about. It will have piped every inch of its 64-mile delivery system and, in the process, provided something good to just about everyone.
Whychus Creek may be the biggest winner of all. TSID draws its water from Whychus Creek, and before piping began the creek ran dry in the summer.
Now, 20 years into the piping project, it has 30 cubic feet per second of water year-round, water that must be left in the creek no matter what. That number, by the way, amounts to more than 13,000 gallons per minute. By 2020, it will have almost 35 cubic feet per second.
Fish, salmon and steelhead will be winners, too. They disappeared from Whychus Creek in about 1895, says Marc Thalacker, manager of TSID, four years after the oldest irrigation district in Deschutes County was created. He expects them back within a few years of the piping project’s completion.
The district’s 193 farms win, as well. While much of the water piping saves is being put back into the creek, farmers get more water, as well, about 25 percent more. More water can mean better farming, and that translates into more money to spend on farm equipment and other items in the community.
Finally, the district will benefit. Three hydro projects generating a total of about 4 million kilowatt-hours of
Central Oregon owes a major chunk of its Euro-American presence to TSID and other irrigation districts formed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Carey Act of 1894, adopted by the state of Oregon in 1901, turned millions of acres of federal land over to the citizens of 10 western states for settlement. A key part of that settlement was irrigated farming, and the irrigation districts were formed to provide the water.
Irrigation still is key to agriculture in Central Oregon, but as the TSID piping project makes clear, agriculture can survive alongside native fish and other animals if it’s done right. Doing it right generally means piping.