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Record-low reservoirs need rain, snow

The three Talent Irrigation District reservoirs are limping into the fall rainy season at their lowest-ever recorded levels, threatening to turn 2021 into another low-water year for more than 3,000 irrigators who rely on that stored water.

Hyatt, Howard Prairie and Emigrant reservoirs collectively now hold about 6,000 acre-feet of water, which is about one-third lower than the record low set in the fall of 1992.

The projects have not been this low since they were first brought online in the late 1950s and early ’60s, records show.

“This is the lowest year on record,” TID Manager Jim Pendleton said. “It’s pretty grim.”

A wet winter in 1992-93 helped wash away many of the woes from the 1992 low-water predicament. However, early forecasts do not appear so helpful this time around, according to the U.S. Natural Resources and Conservation Service.

Forecasts for the rest of 2020 call for warmer and drier conditions than average, said Scott Oviatt, who heads the service’s Oregon Snow Survey office.

Of immediate importance is fall rains to saturate the soils in preparation for the winter snowpack, Oviatt said.

Doing so would prime the ground to allow a higher percentage of future snowpack flowing over land instead of soaking in, Oviatt said.

“We need to wet the sponge so the snowpack can run off in the spring,” Oviatt said.

Oregon in general, and Southern Oregon in particular, have been extremely dry this year, and some serious rains are needed to flip that cycle, Oviatt said.

“It’s not good,” Oviatt said. “It’s been tough, but it can still turn around.”

TID limped out of the irrigation season last month with precariously low reserves in its three reservoirs.

Emigrant Lake was listed Wednesday at just 3% of capacity, while Hyatt Lake was not much better at 4%. Howard Prairie Lake, where the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife lifted its daily trout limit for fear that low water would cause a die-off, was listed Wednesday at 7% of capacity.

The collective capacity of these reservoirs is 115,800 acre-feet of water. That’s enough to cover every PAC-12 college football field under 9,600 feet of water.

On Wednesday, their total storage was just 5,657 acre-feet of water, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, which built the three reservoirs.

Those three reservoirs are the lifeline for orchards, vineyards and smaller farms and ranches in the Bear Creek Valley, feeding about 17,000 acres of land split between about 3,000 patrons.

The low hold-over storage creates an even more serious need for a stout winter snowpack and spring runoff in the High Cascades this year.

Also low are Fish Lake at 9% capacity, Agate Lake at 14% capacity and Fourmile Lake at 10% capacity.

Lost Creek and Applegate lakes, which are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, also are low. Lost Creek was listed Wednesday at almost 8 feet below its normal low fall pool. However, it normally fills or gets close to full even in drought years.

Lost Creek Lake releases are vital to wild salmon and steelhead management on the Rogue River.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter, @MTwriterFreeman.

Emigrant Lake was listed Wednesday at just 3% of capacity. Emigrant, Hyatt Lake and Howard Prairie Lake collectively are now a third lower that the record low of 1992. (Photo by Andy Atkinson)