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Local lakes at historically low levels

Water managers are warning farmers and others who rely on irrigation in Jackson County to brace for low water supplies that could cut the growing season short.

Located east of Ashland, three reservoirs that are key for irrigation are at historically low levels.

Emigrant Lake was 15% full, Hyatt Lake was 14% full and Howard Prairie Lake was 8% full as of Monday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Those low water levels will impact irrigation districts and their customers, as well as people who enjoy recreating at the lakes and visiting county parks on their shores.

“It may likely be the shortest growing season on record. We’ve never seen reservoir levels this low since 1961 when the system was built,” Jackson County Roads and Parks Director John Vial said Tuesday during a briefing with Jackson County commissioners.

The low water levels may come as a surprise to those who haven’t visited the lakes lately.

The Rogue Valley has seen a fairly rainy winter with snow in the mountains.

The amount of water in the snowpack was 87% of normal in the Rogue and Umpqua basins, and precipitation stood at 84% of normal in the basins as of March 1, said Shavon Haynes, Oregon Water Resources Department watermaster for the Medford area.

But the areas that feed into Emigrant Lake, Hyatt Lake and Howard Prairie Lake in southeastern Jackson County aren’t benefiting as much from that precipitation.

“The southeastern portion of the county is suffering more from lack of snowmelt, stream flow and water storage,” Haynes said.

Even with a shortened irrigation season in 2020, water in the lakes has been dwindling away.

Usually in October, the three lakes combined contain more than 40,000 acre feet of water. Supplies dipped to 5,000 acre feet by Oct. 1 in 2020, according to the Talent Irrigation District.

There hasn’t been enough precipitation during the winter to restore water levels at the lakes.

Normally in February, the lakes hold 50,000 acre feet of water. They were storing about 45,000 acre feet of water in February 2020. That dropped to less than 15,000 acre feet of water this February, according to TID.

Both TID and the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District posted warnings about water supplies on their websites in February.

“The last several years have been bleak and hard on us as far as our water supply,” RRVID said on its website. “With snow averages being light and then the long dry summers, our reservoir systems have gone down more and more each year. This means our district and all of the districts have less water to work with, which causes a delay in the start of the water season and also causes the shutdown of the water season to be earlier than normal. Without the winter snowpack we have no way to fill up the system, and that causes us to use more of our reservoir supplies that would typically carry us for the following year.”

The irrigation districts warned users the irrigation season may be “very short” this year.

March rainfall and snow haven’t been enough to help the lakes, Haynes said.

“That can definitely always add to that storage amount. But what we’re really seeing is that average [precipitation] is really happening on that northern and western portion of the county — not necessarily that southeastern portion where these reservoirs that are lacking are located,” he said.

Reservoirs in other parts of the county are faring better. Lost Creek Lake on the upper Rogue River was at 83% of average March 1, and Applegate Lake stood at 85% of average, Haynes said.

Many local reservoirs have a dual purpose — storing water for irrigation and controlling spikes in stream and river flows that could cause flooding. The lakes have to be kept below capacity to reserve room for potential floodwaters. That limits their ability to store water for the dry part of the year.

Because of climate change, rules that put caps on lake water storage could eventually be revised, Haynes said.

Climate change models predict that Southern Oregon will see less snowpack in the winter and longer, hotter summers.

In April 2020, Jackson County commissioners declared a local disaster due to drought conditions.

They’ll be asked to declare another drought disaster at an upcoming meeting.

The declarations allow for emergency financial help to offset crop losses, use of alternate sources of water and more flexibility on water regulations, Haynes said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Emigrant Lake was just 15% full Monday, far below normal, which does not bode well for the irrigation season.Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune