Irrigators tied to Rogue River Basin tributary streams could see water deliveries cut off as early as late June unless late spring rains boost stream flows.
Heading into the start of the summer irrigation season, a dry spring has left many basin creeks running as little as one-third of where they were at this time last year, and that poses problems for landowners who rely on stream withdrawals for irrigation.
Low water levels mean irrigators on younger ranches, farms and vineyards could see their water cut off in favor of older properties under Oregon's water-rights laws, according to the Oregon Water Resources Department.
This process, called regulating, often does not happen until the tail end of the irrigation season in normal flow years.
"This year, we could be regulating very early, like late June, if we don't see some precipitation," said Larry Menteer, the OWRD's deputy regional manager based in Medford. "It looks like it's going to be a tight year on the tributaries."
That's not the case for those who irrigate through local districts that tap into reservoir storage for their summer water needs.
Good carryover storage from last year and decent high-elevation snowpack has helped Jackson County's reservoirs to be at or near full during the first week in May, giving these districts a water bank account they can spend throughout an otherwise lean year.
But two lean water years in a row — or two in three years like the summers of 1992 and '94 — would tax reservoirs to a point where district patrons could join their stream-drawn brethren in the water woes.
"The reservoirs are all in pretty good shape," said Jim Pendleton, manager of the Talent Irrigation District, which feeds most of its patrons water captured at Hyatt, Howard Prairie and Emigrant lakes.
"This year will be fine," Pendleton said. "But we don't want something like this back-to-back."
Oregon water law operates under a "first in time, first in right" policy that determines who gets a stream's irrigation water during low-flow periods.
According to the law, properties with older, "senior" water rights get their legal allotment before younger, "junior" water rights get a drop. Even if the junior water-rights are upstream of the senior ones, those landowners at times have to watch streams flow past their parched fields to feed the older ranches.
In low years, watermasters begin regulating water to ensure minimum in-stream flows are met — or on a complaint basis.
Other smaller creeks such as Foots and Kane creeks near Gold Hill could drop to a trickle and wink out in late summer, becoming "self-regulated," with no one getting water in late summer.
Evans Creek, which flows into the Rogue at the city of Rogue River, offers a snapshot of the water dilemma and what's in store for those who rely on it.
"Just from an eyeball perspective, Evans Creek looks like it's flowing the way it does in late June," Menteer said.
Flows at the creek mouth last May 3 were 150 cubic feet per second of water, records show. That gauge reading Friday was 50 cfs.
"Last year, I didn't regulate Evans Creek until September," Menteer said. "This year, it could be June."
Elsewhere in the basin, the story is different, depending upon the drainage and how much snow is left in it.
The Little Applegate River, for instance, was flowing last May 4 at 160 cfs at its confluence with the Applegate River, records show. It was flowing at 115 cfs Friday.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com.