Of the Baker City Herald

At least there was no dam-breaching earthquake.

But nature has dealt Unity Reservoir and the ranchers who depend on its water every other bad card possible over the past several months.

And the situation has been similarly stressful for landowners throughout Baker County, including those who draw their irrigation water from Phillips and Thief Valley reservoirs.

As August ends, Unity Reservoir is holding barely two percent of the water it has room for.

When the reservoir in southern Baker County is full, theres just less than 25,000 acre-feet of water behind the dam, said Jerry Franke, manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District and the dams operator.

Today that dam is holding back 517 acre-feet of water.

I had to go back to 1950 to find a year that was even close to this bad, Franke said.

In 1992, which until this year was probably the worst drought since 1977, Unity was holding 800 acre-feet at the end of August.

The 25-year average is 9,000 acre-feet.

But this years problems started long before the sizzling summer sun started sucking up the reservoirs water.

The snowpack in the mountains around Unity was so paltry last winter that the reservoir never reached even half its capacity an unprecedented situation, Franke said.

We normally fill every winter, he said.

With the reservoir far below full even before the summer solstice, Franke had to cut off the flow for downstream irrigation for about a month in June and July.

The ranchers in the Burnt River Valley who rely on Unitys water to feed their hay fields got about half as much as they normally do, Franke said.

Their hay crop is way down, he said.

Ranchers who are farthest downstream, around Durkee, fared the worst, Franke said.

Even when he was releasing large amounts of water from the dam, most of it evaporated or soaked into the dusty river banks before it reached their fields.

And now, with no water available from the reservoir, ranchers must hope for early autumn rains to quench their pastures, Franke said.

If the rain doesnt fall, those pastures will produce little forage and landowners will have to buy more hay to feed their livestock this winter.

Its definitely the worst (water year) since the dam was built (in the late 1930s), said Lynn Shumway, a lifelong Bridgeport resident and rancher. Were buying hay this year, which we ordinarily dont have to do.

Yet Shumway said the summer wasnt as parched as he expected.

A series of storms in July helped considerably, despite hampering ranchers haying schedules.

We got through the summer a lot better than we thought we would, Shumway said. The valley is pretty green.

It is so mostly because the landowners and Franke decided this spring to shut off water from the reservoir for that month in early summer, Shumway.

August certainly was no help.

At most only a stray shower reached the ground during the month, and Franke said the temperature at the dam exceeded 90 degrees on 18 straight days.

Heavy snow may not be enough

If there is reason for optimism, it would be this, Franke said: If this winters snowpack is even average, Unity should be full to the brim next spring.

But Jim Colton needs more than an average snowpack.

Colton manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District, which operates Mason Dam and Phillips Reservoir.

Like Unity, Phillips is about as close to empty as its ever been.

Colton said the reservoir is holding about 10,000 acre-feet of water its normal capacity is 73,500, and its been higher than that occasionally for flood control.

Of the water left in Phillips, just 4,900 acre-feet is usable, Colton said, meaning it can be used to irrigate fields.

Another 1,400 acre-feet is reserved to help fish downstream in the Powder River, he said. The reservoir cant drop below 3,600 acre-feet.

Colton said the drawdown of Phillips is actually right on schedule based on the plans he made in April.

At that time he allocated one and a half feet of irrigation water per acre for 18,000 acres. Just a handful of landowners still have water coming to them, Colton said maybe 1,000 acre-feet all told.

Colton said the irrigation district didnt fare as badly as he expected this summer due to two main factors: Cooperation among farmers and ranchers, who coordinated their irrigating and haying schedules; and those several days of cool, showery weather in July.

But its this winters weather that will tell the tale.

If we dont get an exceptional snowpack were not going to fill that reservoir, Colton said. Im really counting on this one.

If snow doesnt pile up, many landowners probably will have to assert their primary water rights next spring, Colton said.

Because those rights predate the districts, Colton would have to let that water flow downstream rather than store it in the reservoir, essentially ensuring the reservoir wont fill.

Keating Valley ranchers had to share a limited supply of water, too, said Dale Curtis, manager/operator of the Lower Powder River Irrigation District.

Thief Valley Reservoir, which in some years is still full at the end of July, started dropping in late April this year, Curtis said.

The reservoir was shut off Aug. 3.

Its a scary year, Curtis said. Ive had ranchers tell me its worse than 77, which until this year was generally considered Oregons worst drought in half a century.