Irrigators under "a lot of stress"

April 23, 2001 11:00 pm
Sprinklers wet grass in the shadow of the Elkhorns receding snowpack. Recent snowstorms alleviated but did not eliminate drought  worries. (Baker City Herald photograph by Kathy Orr).
Sprinklers wet grass in the shadow of the Elkhorns receding snowpack. Recent snowstorms alleviated but did not eliminate drought worries. (Baker City Herald photograph by Kathy Orr).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Just how bad things will get for the farming and ranching communities in the worst drought year since 1977 remains to be seen.

Its bad, said Rick Lusk, Baker Countys watermaster. And if we dont get the precipitation we usually get in May and June, it will be really bad. Its potentially the worst drought weve ever seen.

Statistics from the Natural Resources Conservation Service seem to back up Lusks assessment. Many stations report snowpack thats lower than the 1977 drought year. Most of this winters snow began melting in early March, three to four weeks earlier than usual.

Unity Reservoir has not been this low this late in the fill season since the 1950s. At just over 1,000 acre-feet of storage in mid-April, the reservoir is at 45 percent of where it typically is, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Other area reservoirs are faring little better. Phillips Reservoir, for example, is just 51 percent full. Mason Dam there is holding back about 37,000 acre-feet of water; usually, the reservoir is 65 percent full this time of year, Lusk said.

But were sitting better than many other basins, he said. The Rogue River Basin in Southern Oregon, he said, is about 35 percent full, and its rapidly going away.

Mountain snowpack, Lusk said Monday, is up to about 78 percent after snow fell in early April. But that number may be artificially high, he said, inflated by the 157 percent figure measured at Beaver Reservoir.

Any way its measured, the snowpack for the Burnt, Powder, Grand Ronde and Imnaha basins is dangerously close to the lowest its ever been since measurements were first taken. On top of that, the National Weather Services long-term precipitation outlook is rather sparse for the coming months, Lusk said.

According to the NRCS, streamflow forecasts for April through July range from a low of 48 percent along the Burnt River near Hereford to 67 percent of average on the Wallowa River.

Just how these paltry measurements will affect everyday water users this summer is uncertain, Lusk said. A Drought Council has been formed among state and federal officials, and the State Water Resources Department is working with county officials to determine what to do if a local drought declaration is made. In that case, cities would have to decide whether to forbid, for example, lawn watering, or whether to allow it on an odd-even schedule.

That may be inconvenient for city dwellers, but its a lot worse than that for those on the farm, said Deryl Leggett, a senior credit officer for Farm Credit Services.

Our customers are feeling a lot of stress, he said. Theres a lot of pressure on the ranching community when you restrict the number of cattle that can be grazed on public lands. Theres a lot of uncertainty about how good the grass will be (as a result of the drought). If (cows) have to come in early, there will be a critical shortage of pastureland.

We know that hay cuttings will vary, Leggett said. Some (farmers) have better water rights than others, and those with wells will have full seasons.

Brad Allen, who grows wheat, alfalfa and potatoes near the intersection of Poleline and Pocahontas roads, dug a dozen wells years ago. That seems to have been a good fix, he said. When we have short years and that seems to happen every three years or so the wells pick up the slack.

But looming for Allen and others who seek water below the surface rather than from mountain snow runoff are energy price hikes that could arrive as soon as this fall. Allen figures energy price increases alone will raise his irrigation cost by 50 percent or more.

Thats okay for potatoes, he said, because the price for that commodity is locked in at relatively favorable rates for producers, but for alfalfa and wheat, thats a little tough to justify.

At this point, we would like to think Mother Nature will bless us with some timely rain, Farm Credits Leggett said. That would ease the problem, but it wouldnt cure it.

The spring rains that Leggett and others hope for would green up rangeland, which is a huge part of summer forage for our cattle, said OSU Extension Agent Jay Carr. Thats not dependent on snowpack much, but on spring rains. It would be a big help.

Carr said the biggest concern locally is the low level of Unity Reservoir. One producer he knows of has decided to let his ground go fallow this season, taking Idaho Power up on its buy-back program.

They are paying a little better than they are in the Baker Valley, Carr said. I didnt hear of any interest here for the program.

People are going to go for it, and hope for the best.

If farmers are forced to tighten their belts, so will the people who operate the businesses that support them. Mike Dyke, who runs Elkhorn Ironworks, a maker of filters for irrigation systems, said his business is a little slower than it was last year, when he opened his shop.

Dyke, who worked in the industry several years before setting out on his own, said that past drought seasons have slowed things down. If people dont have the crops to pay for the things they need, you cant get it done. It kind of puts the doom on the businesses that are trying to help the farmers.