Central Oregon Irrigators Ask Counties to Declare Drought

March 3, 2022

On February 21, 2022, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control submitted drought declaration requests to commissioners representing Jefferson, Crook, and Deschutes counties. The letter also requests that Governor Kate Brown issue an executive order, declaring drought in the region.

The primary benefits of a state drought declaration from the Governor are that it creates greater awareness of drought conditions, facilitates coordination between state agencies, and allows the Water Resources Department to provide existing water right holders with access to emergency water management tools.

Despite recent precipitation and snowfall, Central Oregon’s snowpack and precipitation remain below average for the water year. As of March 1, the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins were 85% of median for precipitation and just 78% of median for snowpack (Snow Water Equivalent).

Reservoirs are also at or near record lows. Wickiup Reservoir, which stores water for the North Unit Irrigation District farmers located mainly around Culver and Madras, contained 96,373 acre-feet of water as of Tuesday, which is just 48% of capacity. The long-term climate forecast doesn’t anticipate a reversal of the historic drought, and National Weather Service predicts higher than average temperatures and below-average precipitation.

Drought, severe weather conditions, and the upcoming fire season pose significant threats to the tri-county region’s local economy, agriculture, livestock, natural resources, and recreation.

During these extenuating conditions, it may be necessary for the Oregon Water Resources Department and Deschutes Basin irrigation districts to appropriately manage and, in some instances, make changes to individual systems and flow rates at which deliveries are made to district patrons.

“The frequency and intensity of these drought events highlight the urgency to update antiquated irrigation infrastructure through water conservation projects,” said Craig Horrell, president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control. “We are committed to piping open canals and improving on-farm efficiencies to increase water reliability and conserve water.”

The Deschutes Basin Board of Control comprises eight irrigation districts, including Arnold, Central Oregon, Lone Pine, North Unit, Ochoco, Swalley, Three Sisters, and Tumalo. Collectively they convey water to over 7,600 farms and ranches, as well as local cities, parks, and schools.


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Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan Complete

On December 31, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the completion of the Deschutes River Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). The HCP is a collaborative strategy to share water resources in the Deschutes Basin, covering irrigation and related water management operations while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat.
After twelve years of hard work and collaboration, the eight irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin and the City of Prineville are excited to move forward with the conservation measures set forth in the HCP!

Overlooking the Deschutes Wild and Scenic River. Photo Credit: Bob Wick/BLM

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The Deschutes Basin Board of Control (DBBC) has prepared a document addressing recent statements and questions related to the Habitat Conservation Plan and other conservation initiatives.



Some have alleged that irrigators want the public to be distracted by what they term a false dichotomy of "frogs versus farmers," when instead, in their view, the "real" choice is a healthy river system and efficient irrigators versus waste. This point of view relies on the asserted premise that there is currently enough water in the system to take care of the needs of both the species and “efficient irrigators” if Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) would just stop wasting water and allow water sharing.



The premise for this viewpoint is seriously flawed. ​​ First, it assumes that COID patrons are wasting water. ​​ This is false. ​​ While the technology around water use will always improve over time, just because a landowner has not purchased and implemented the latest state-of-the-art technology, it doesn't mean that they are wasting water. ​​ They're still putting water to beneficial use, just as they've done for the last 100 years. ​​ 


Second, the viewpoint is flawed because it assumes COID is responsible for its patrons' water use efficiency, and that COID can somehow force its patrons to become more efficient. ​​ State law doesn't give irrigation districts the authority to do this. ​​ At the same time, however, state law does enable COID to make its overall delivery system more efficient.


Third, the viewpoint is flawed because it assumes there is currently enough water in the system for COID, North Unit Irrigation District (NUID), and fish and wildlife. ​​ There's simply not, without large scale piping projects by the districts, which can be combined with voluntary efforts by landowners who undertake on-farm improvements.


And finally, the viewpoint incorrectly assumes COID is not allowing sharing. ​​ That's also false. ​​ COID currently delivers an average of 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water (conserved by COID through previous piping projects) through the Pilot Butte Canal and to the North Unit Main Canal.​​ 


COID is currently working with the Deschutes River Conservancy, Summit Conservation, and AMP Insights on a water marketing program. ​​ The pilot project would allow water right sharing between water users. ​​ The goal of the pilot project is an additional 5 cfs during the 2020 irrigation season, with a total goal of delivering 50 cfs through water sharing and on-farm programs. ​​ The program, which is expected to launch in 2020, is being funded through a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation WaterSmart grant.​​ 



Critics allege the irrigation district conservation plans are flawed in relying on “expensive big piping” to reduce water use when “far cheaper approaches” are available such as piping private ditches, eliminating flood irrigation, and offering incentives to use less water. 



The districts are employing a variety of conservation tools including:


  • Transfers: Permanent transfers of water rights off the land generate improved water supply for farmers, cities, and the Deschutes River.


  • Leases: Temporary transfers (usually one year) of water rights off the land generate improved water supply for farmers, cities, and the Deschutes River.


  • Sharing: Water agreements between districts facilitate water conservation measures and improve reliability.


  • Piping: Piping outdated canals, which can leak up to 50% of their water during transmission, allows landowners and the Deschutes River to capture an abundance of water.


  • Reservoir Management: Better allocation of stored water addresses district water supply and streamflow needs.


  • On-farm Improvements:​​ Districts are working with landowners to implement voluntary conservation measures.


The districts are focused on updating the antiquated irrigation infrastructure in a way that does the most good for farmers, the community, and the environment. ​​ Many of the districts are stuck with wildly inefficient systems that​​&nbs