Resources run dry
Beyond extreme fire danger and the shocking sight of dried out lakes, dying trees and rolling brown fields, the devastation of dried-up wells and loss of irrigation district supplies have become a depressing reality for rural property owners.
With Southern Oregon faces more triple-digit temperatures and rain levels the lowest they’ve been in a century, some residents are triaging landscapes while others are without water for cooking, showering and laundry.
Both Medford and Talent irrigation districts had shutoff periods in mid-June, to let supplies catch up. A month later, both districts were forced to shut down much earlier than usual September timeline.
Local residents are making hard decisions about their properties while local officials are shoring up policies to try and keep a closer eye on limited resources and buckle down on illegal water use.
Phoenix resident Tina Reuwsaat, whose 2.6 acre orchard are solely dependent on the TID, said her summer started with worrying about fire danger to have no water at all. Facing the possibility of leaving the home where she once planned to live out her days, Reuwsaat said her historic 1908 home, without water, has no value.
When the well dried up in August, Reuwsaat wrote off her food garden and gave away countless shrubs and flowers from her once picturesque property. Throughout the past month, her husband made six to seven daily trips to a local water depot, waiting in long lines to fill portable tanks to use for laundry, cooking and showers.
“We got on a waiting list to attempt to find an additional water source by digging an estimated $35,000 well. They are booked out until 2022 and there’s no guarantee of even finding water,” she said.
“My property value has plummeted from $850,000 to unsaleable.”
Pam Shipley, who built a sunflower farm in 2018 on her Phoenix property that has been in her family for eight decades, echoed a similar sentiment. Anticipating a drier-than-usual year, Shipley planted 1/4 of her usual garden. Even that proved ambitious.
“We had to just let it all die off this year. This is unprecedented for us. Talent irrigation usually goes on in mid-May and shuts off around the third week of September,” Shipley said.
“We thought we could figure things out, so we bought a 2,500-gallon water tank and said it would probably last us two weeks if we watered sparingly. It lasted three days. I’ve lost track of how much water we’ve purchased now, even with letting our pitiful little sunflower crop just die.
TID president and former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said he was devastated for residents facing water loss. In addition to installing a telemetry system to measure the water entering canals and to determine any loss, the district is working on ways to better secure access points to keep water from being stolen.
Winters said he has personally driven the ditches of the entire system to find makeshift diversions and to brainstorm ways to make the 1950s-built system more secure.
“In the past, management hasn’t gone the law-enforcement route, but it’s going to be a new day at the Talent Irrigation District. We’re not going to deal with people cutting off locks or helping themselves to water they don’t have a right to,” Winters said.
“It is absolutely wrong for people who pay for water access at the end of the canal to go without because it’s being stolen.”
Jackson County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Aaron Lewis said theft of water had been a big concern in recent years. Lewis said unauthorized water use isn’t a new trend but drought had exacerbated the issue. Lewis said calls about illegal water use have become increasing common. A significant diversion occurred last year when Griffin Creek Elementary, near south Medford and Jacksonville, was taken over by an illegal marijuana farm.
“What happened is very near Griffin Creek Elementary. There was an illegal grow that ended up damming Griffin Creek for their own use. They used heavy equipment and had pushed all the water to their property for their own use,” he said.
“They had 40 greenhouses. It was a huge issue.”
Lewis estimated the number of illegal grows, all using water from various undetermined source is, “in the hundreds.” Fines, which can top out at just over $100,000, aren’t always a deterrent.
Shavon Haynes, district watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said the region can only hope for a wet winter while finding ways to better conserve and oversee limited supplies.
“With the drought we did run into an unusual amount of unauthorized use. I wouldn’t say it was any kind of crops specifically, but we really are seeing more unauthorized users than we have in the past. It’s a hard year for everybody,” Haynes said.
“We’re trying to be optimistic but it’s going to be difficult for the irrigation districts to fill those reservoirs if we continue to get below average precipitation. Hopefully we get a good water year this year and things can start to turn around but, with these consecutive drought years, it’s a sign that everybody is going to have to rethink how they’re operating and make changes for what looks like what might become the new normal.”
Reuwsaat called on local officials to advocate for property owners with regional and state agencies, whether by way of extending water supplies or helping offset impact to property values. An irony, her home was built by an orchardist in 1908 who was involved in establishing the first irrigation districts. He also lost the property to the bank in 1918 due to an extended drought. Reuwsaat said she wasn’t hopeful for supplies to return anytime soon.
“No one warned or envisioned such a drastic and permanent failure of our water supply, but, when people lose their electricity, it makes national headlines and utility workers rush out at all hours in dangerous weather to repair it,” she said.
“When people lose their water, they are completely ignored. It all seems really out of balance. People are in crisis and it doesn’t feel like help is coming anytime soon.”
On March 31, Gov. Kate Brown issued executive orders declaring states of drought emergency in Jackson and Klamath counties due to unusually low snowpack and low precipitation. Southern Oregon lakes are at near record lows. Emigrant Lake is 3% full, while Howard Prairie Lake sits at 4% capacity, and Hyatt Lake is 1% full, according to the Jackson County Watermaster.
Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org