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TID will shut off irrigation water Monday

The Rogue Valley irrigation season will end early do to dwindling water supplies in local reservoirs like Emigrant Lake. Andy Atkinson/Mail Tribune
Fields will become fire hazards as they turn brown

With reservoirs drying up, the Talent Irrigation District plans to shut off irrigation water on Monday morning ― well before crops are ready for harvest at local vineyards, orchards and cannabis grows.

Water could still be running in some canals until Tuesday as they drain down, TID said.

The disastrously early end to the irrigation season comes even though TID tried to stretch out supplies by turning off water for two weeks in June.

Once the water is turned off for good Monday, irrigated pasture land and hay fields could start turning into fire hazards, warned TID Board of Directors President Mike Winters.

“In two to three weeks, a large amount of acreage that’s kept green by irrigation will be drying up and turning brown. Those fields will be flammable. We hope people will cut everything down while it’s still green,” Winters said.

Jackson and Josephine counties entered the extreme fire danger category on Wednesday, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The Medford Irrigation District and Rogue River Irrigation District believe they can keep their water flowing until Aug. 1.

But that date also falls before harvest season for marijuana, hemp, wine grapes and pears ― Jackson County’s most valuable agricultural crops.

“I feel pretty strong that we can get to Aug. 1. It’s going to be right there,” said Rogue River Valley Irrigation District Manager Brian Hampson.

MID and RRVID rely mainly on reservoirs in central Jackson County that ranged from 11-35% full as of Thursday.

TID relies on reservoirs in southeastern Jackson County that were 4-9% full as of Thursday.

The reservoirs are at historically low levels amid a multiyear drought.

“We talk about this daily, and it’s a bad situation. We’re in uncharted waters. We haven’t been this bad before, so we’re learning as we go,” Hampson said.

It would take two to six years of slightly above-average rain and snow to refill the Emigrant, Hyatt Lake and Howard Prairie reservoirs in southern Jackson County, according to estimates developed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at the request of the Mail Tribune.

“The number of years required to fill the system is reduced to two to three years if we receive well above normal inflow years like we experienced in 1993, 1995 or 2016,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Civil Engineer Jon Rocha.

The reservoirs will not refill with normal inflows and outflows because slightly more water flows out of the reservoirs each year than flows in, Rocha said.

Emigrant, Hyatt Lake and Howard Prairie are an interconnected set of reservoirs that together can store 143,906 acre-feet of usable water, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data.

Winters said irrigators are at the mercy of Mother Nature. He said the area needs a change in weather patterns in order for the reservoirs to fill back up.

“As much as we’d like to give them hope, the best thing they can do is plan for the worst and hope for the best. Financially, they should plan for the worst-case scenario,” Winters said. “I sold all my cows and hay equipment. I could just see the problems coming.”

Fish Lake, Fourmile Lake and Agate Lake in central Jackson County can together store 28,106 acre-feet of water.

With good precipitation, Hampson said he thinks those reservoirs could refill faster because of their smaller size.

Medford Irrigation District Manager Jack Friend said reservoirs don’t need to be full to provide water for irrigation. They were designed to provide multiple years of water storage when full to help the area get through bad water years.

Facing multiple years of drought, irrigation districts had to suck their reservoirs almost dry to limp through the 2020 growing season.

Precipitation and the water content of the snowpack over the winter was nearly normal. But the soil was so dry it absorbed most of the snow when it melted, leaving little water to run off into reservoirs, irrigation district managers said.

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