Of the Baker City Herald

Phillips Reservoir has endured some nasty droughts since it was first filled with the Powder Rivers chilly water 33 years ago.

But the current drought is a bit nastier than any of those.

Its been pretty tough, said Jim Colton, manager of the Baker Valley Irrigation District. Theres an awful lot of ranchers who are out of water for the year.

Colton is an authority on the relationship between drought and Phillips Reservoir hes worked for the district since Mason Dam was built to store snowmelt from the Elkhorn Mountains.

The reservoir, which impounds 73,500 acre-feet of water when its full, is holding about 16,000 acre-feet now.

Although it may not drop to its minimum of 5,000 acre-feet as Colton thought it might, he said the reservoir is likely to recede this fall to near or possibly below its record low of 11,000.

That happened in 1977, which until this year could claim the worst drought in more than a generation.

Colton said 2001 is worse because the reservoir was lower than normal last fall. That poor start, combined with last winters paltry snowpack, resulted in the reservoirs current shrunken state.

Still, he said, the situation could have been worse.

Ranchers and farmers made the best of the situation by striving to coordinate their haying and irrigation schedules, thus making the most of the water that was available, Colton said.

Last week, after most landowners had baled hay from their most recent cutting, Colton opened the gates at the dam, increasing the flow into Powder River to 370 cubic feet per second (cfs). Thats the highest rate of the summer, he said.

Although about 100 cfs soaked into the rivers parched banks before it reached the fields, there was enough water to irrigate 5,000 acres, Colton said.

That acreage includes alfalfa fields, from which ranchers hope to get a third cutting, as well as wild hay pastures that, if irrigated, will provide crucial forage for cattle through autumn, Colton said.

Had ranchers and farmers not cooperated, he said, fewer acres would have been irrigated.

Ken Benson, who owns the Heritage Ranch near Haines, agreed with Colton that valley landowners benefited by working together.

Its been better than I thought it would be, Benson said.

George Chandler, of Chandler Hereford Ranch between Baker City and Haines, said the drought has forced all ranchers to conserve.

Its been pretty tight, Chandler said. Everybodys more conservative, more cautious with their water.

Benson said the several periods of cool and occasionally damp weather this summer have helped ease the effects of drought.

The rain has been particularly beneficial for those wild hay meadows, Chandler said.

There is a downside, though: The showers have fouled up some ranchers haying schedules, he said.

But all that cooperation among landowners cant add water to a reservoir.

Even with the more efficient irrigation schedule the landowners efforts made possible, Colton said its been pretty tough on these guys.

Some ranchers have had irrigation water on just 10 to 15 days this year, he said.

Some people are irrigating only their best ground, not all of it, Colton said.

Benson, for example, said he sacrificed 120 of his acres. He didnt spray a drop of irrigation water on that ground, ensuring the rest of the ranch had enough.

With 1,500 head to feed, plus calves, and hay prices on the rise due to the lack of water, he had no choice, he said.

Benson said last weeks flush of water from Phillips was an infusion of lifeblood for his and other ranches.

This makes all the difference in the world, he said.

Chandler agreed.

He remembers the days before Mason Dam was built. He remembers the year in the 60s when the river went dry around the 10th of July.

At that time, Chandler said, ranchers would have welcomed the chance to worry about how they would irrigate in the late summer and fall.

They didnt have to back then because there just wasnt any water, he said. That dams been a real benefit.