'Junior' water rights can have major impact; 'seniors' trying to help
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday issued an executive order declaring drought emergencies for seven Oregon counties, including the three in Central Oregon, but Jefferson County farmers may feel the brunt of the conditions on the High Desert.
Due to unusually low water supplies, mixed with the hot and dry conditions, Crook, Deschutes, Douglas, Gilliam, Jefferson, Josephine and Wasco counties were placed in drought emergency as state agencies were directed to provide needed assistance and relief.
Brown said, “Forecasted water supply conditions are not expected to improve, and drought is likely to have significant economic impacts on the farm, forest, recreation, drinking water, and natural resources sectors, as well as impacts on fish and wildlife and other natural resources which are dependent on adequate precipitation and streamflow in these areas.”
One of the places people may have already seen the impacts is Prineville Reservoir, where two boat docks remain unopened due to the low water levels.
Mike Britton, general manager of the North Unit Irrigation District in Madras, told KTVZ that Wickiup Reservoir is at the lowest level ever recorded for this time of year. It's just 38% full, as the region's "teacup" diagram shows.
Shon Rae, deputy managing director of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said Bend-area residents may not see a direct impact on water use, but farmers depending on irrigation districts with "junior" rights will feel the greatest effects.
“So there’s a variety of other folks that are using COID irrigation water, but the farmers are definitely going to be the ones that are most affected," Rae said. "They’re the ones that, it’s their livelihood -- if they don’t have water and their crops aren’t growing, then it’s like you not having money come in the bank.”
Rae also noted that to help those irrigation districts the most, the best thing COID can do is conserve -- "just making sure we are running really tight with our water, and doing the best we can to leave as much water in the river for junior (rights water) users.”
Irrigation districts are prioritized for water rights by by their seniority. As COID is one of the oldest districts, defining it as a senior user, the clients they serve are the priority in the area. The junior users such as the North Unit Irrigation District, are next in line.
With these conditions, Katrina Van Dis, executive director of the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, said supporting local growers is more important than ever this year.
"Just supporting the farmers while we can, while they have crops that they are watering and they are harvesting is super-important," she said.
Van Dis added that one farm in Madras may be leaving 40% of its land fallow this year.
The conditions of the drought will be monitored by several different state organizations, including the Oregon Water Resources Department, Oregon Office of Emergency Management and the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which is seeking federal funds to assist in agricultural recovery in the affected counties.