Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

By Joshua Dillen


There's not much water to spare in Baker County these days.

The outlook isr ather bleak for irrigators who rely on water from Unity Reservoir in southern Baker County.

Jerry Franke, manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District, said 8,000 acres of farmland depend on the water from that reservoir.

He said the current drought is the worst he's seen in his 23 years on the job.

"We're definitely going to run out (of water). It's beyond concern. It's become a fact of life," Franke said.

Jeff Colton, manager of the Baker Valley Irrigation District, said that in spite of Phillips Reservoir being at just 40 percent of its capacity, he thinks there will be enough water to go around - this summer, anyway.

"We'll make it though the farming season," Colton said. "I am worried about next year if we don't get much of a snowpack this winter."

Craig Ward of Ward Ranches has about 2,200 acres of irrigated farmland near Baker City that uses water from Phillips Reservoir.

Ward Ranches also has three backup wells.

Craig Ward said he's concerned about the current water levels at Phillips.

"It's real tight for getting to the end of the year. It's been a battle to keep up, but we'll make it through the year," he said.

The Wards grow mainly potatoes, peppermint and alfalfa. The family also raises wheat on about 950 acres of dry land that is doing very well because of the June rainfall.

Potatoes are at a crucial point.

"We need to stay ahead of the game. We're at peak (water) use right now," Ward said. "If you get behind and stress them it can affect quality and yield."

His peppermint is doing very well. It likes the heat and will be ready for harvest in about two weeks.

Bobby Harrell of Harrell Herefords in west Baker Valley said the heavy rains in late June - by far the soggiest stretch in 2013 - did wonders for his unirrigated rangeland.

"The grass kind of perked up and we got some green," Harrell said. "If it wasn't for that, we'd be in a world of hurt."

Harrell said his alfalfa crop is good, but his grass hay is a little light.

He said he has dealt with drier years and is not worried about running out of irrigation water this year. Harrell uses a combination of water from several creeks on the west side of the valley, his own water and water from Phillips Reservoir. He said his operation has gotten more efficient over the years.

"Water is the lifeblood in this neck of the woods," Harrell said. "If you don't have water, you don't have anything."

As with any year, Harrell is concerned that as the typically dry month of August approaches, there is the usual concern of wildfires on the rangeland he uses.

"If we get some lightning storms, it'll be kind of scary," he said.

A July 16 map from U.S. Drought Monitor (droughtmonitor.unl.edu) shows Northeastern Oregon in an abnormally dry state, while areas to the south are in a moderate to severe state of drought.

Until late June, 2013 was on pace to be among the driest years on record in Baker County.

At that point the year's rainfall total was about 35 percent below average.

But 2.1 inches of rain fell at the Baker City Airport from June 19 to June 26.

Although just .05 of an inch has fallen in July (the monthly average is .53), the 2013 total is just 11 percent below average.