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Local irrigation future looks dry

The manager of the irrigation district says area's farmers could make it this season "by the skin of our teeth" but some are sure to run out of their water allocation

   An acre foot of water is the volume of water necessary to cover one acre to a depth of one foot. Equal to 43,560 cubic feet or 325,851 gallons.
   This week's cool, cloudy weather conditions are a blessing to the area's farmers, but in the bigger irrigation picture, it won't really matter. Lowering water levels at both the area's reservoirs are being watched carefully.
   Ochoco Reservoir
   The latest readings at Ochoco Reservoir are close to record lows. The last time the water level was this low was Feb. 4, 2000. However this isn't the lowest the local irrigation district has had to deal with. At this time in 1988, the capacity reading was about the same, 14,000 acre feet. In the summer of 1990, the level was at about 10,000 acre feet and a year later was even lower; 8,910 acre feet. According to the manager of the Ochoco Irrigation District, 1992 was a very bad year, the reservoir held only 6,600 acre feet at this time of year. Two years later the body of water was drained to a mere mud puddle as the Bureau of Reclamation did extensive repairs to the earth-filled dam.
   The water behind Ochoco Dam is allocated for irrigation and managed by Russell Rhoden, manager of OID. Each spring, depending on winter runoffs and the outlook for additional rainfall, farmers are allocated a set amount of water for irrigation. Included in the list of water users are a few residential subdivisions. Typically irrigators are allocated three acre feet. Early conditions made the OID board of directors decide to reduce that to two acre feet. Earlier this week the board, under pressure to help farmers, raised that allocation to 2.25 acre feet.
   "That's not very much," Rhoden said, "and we would like to do more, but ..."
   Several local farmers will probably run out of their allocation before fall, he added. Some can expect to have enough for another irrigation or two, but he believes some will be out of water by late August or early September.
   "I can't imagine anyone planting grain or winter wheat, and the mint and garlic farmers could be in trouble," Rhoden said.
   The irrigation season is about half over and approximately 8,700 acre feet have been used.
   That leaves about 6,000 or 7,000 acre feet left to be taken out. That wouldn't be a problem before the rebuilding of the dam in 1994.
   When that project was completed, the BOR had raised the inlet structure. When the water level gets below that point, it will take pumps sitting on barges to take out any more. And that, Rhoden said, gets very expensive.
   "Depending on what we get next winter (in runoff), that is something we might have to do next year."
   So far, most water users have been conserving their water pretty good, Rhoden said, but there are always a few who don't seem to think there is a problem. "The message is, when the board added that quarter foot to the allocation, that's all there is. Once that is used up, that's it. That's all they'll get. There will be no more raises in the allocation."
   So far this season, Rhoden added, "we've been able to get by, by the skin of our teeth."
   Prineville Reservoir
   The other source of local irrigation water, Prineville Reservoir, is also very low. The present level was last seen last March. Before it was the summer of 1991 when levels dropped even lower, to 68,033 acre feet. The summer of 1992, just as at Ochoco Reservoir, the level of Prineville Reservoir also fell to near record lows; 49,108 acre feet.
   That year, Rhoden said, once the irrigation district had used up its allocation it had to buy water from the BOR. Each year, OID is allocated 59,000 acre feet of the water stored behind Bowman Dam. "That's a lot of water," Rhoden said, "but this year the district didn't get its full allocation because of the low water early in the season."
   Some people have question the recent release of water down the Crooked River. That, Rhoden explained, was water the bureau had sold to the Madras irrigation district's North Unit.
   Prineville is a different situation for the irrigation district, Rhoden explained. Almost all water from there has to be pumped and the control of flow is not as good as from Ochoco Reservoir because of the distances involved. "We can micromanage Ochoco," he said, "but we can't just run up and adjust the flow from Prineville. By the time the water gets into the system, conditions can change. We use Ochoco to 'tweak' the supply, and lately the dam-tender has been kept busy."
   Looking ahead to next year, projections are not looking much better. "We'll hold (over) as much as we can and let people know. They'll have to do their part to use water wisely. It's just a waiting game to see what'll happen. We may have to end up using the barges and pumps."
   Rhoden says he thinks things will be okay this year, but "People will have to continue to conserve, there won)t be another boost in the allocation."