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Water outlook bleak for Rogue Valley

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Emigrant Lake, a crucial reservoir for Rogue Valley irrigation, was only 10% full Thursday.
Irrigation water supplies at historically low levels

Local farms and orchards are likely to face an irrigation season this year that is even worse than last year’s historically short season.

After years of drought, water levels are at record-breaking lows in reservoirs that feed irrigation systems in the Rogue Valley.

“Right now it’s looking pretty bleak,” said Rogue River Valley Irrigation District Manager Brian Hampson.

The 2022 irrigation season might be measured in days instead of months — if the water flows at all. Water normally travels in irrigation canals from spring until early fall.

“I don’t know how long we’ll run it, or if we’ll run it at all. We’re looking at 20 days run time max,” Hampson said of the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District’s water delivery system.

Last year, the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District and the Medford Irrigation District had to cut off water at the beginning of August, well before harvest time for crops such as wine grapes and pears. The Talent Irrigation District had to end its irrigation season in mid-July — even after shutting off water for two weeks in June in an effort to extend its season.

“Last year was the shortest irrigation season on record, and this year our water supplies are lower than last year,” said Medford Irrigation District Manager Jack Friend.

Later this month, the districts will discuss the water situation and make decisions about their irrigation seasons. There’s still a chance spring rain could boost the dismal reservoir levels, but time is running out after dry weather in January and February failed to push water levels up and boost snowpack, local managers said.

Districts are advising growers to be aware of the extreme water shortage when planning their crops.

On Thursday, Emigrant Lake and Hyatt Lake were 10% full, Howard Prairie Lake was 8% full, Fish Lake was 38% full, Fourmile Lake was 16% full and Agate Lake was 61% full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“Many of these reservoirs are very, very, very far below what they are normally at this time of year,” said Shavon Haynes, Oregon Water Resources Department watermaster for the Jackson County area.

The reservoirs are designed to store multiple years’ worth of water, but irrigation districts have had to draw the water down to limp through their irrigation seasons.

Adding to the water woes, most of Oregon is suffering lower than normal stream flows. Stream flows are only 29% of average in Jackson County, Haynes said.

Jackson County commissioners are likely to declare another drought emergency for the year at a meeting this spring.

At Crater Lake, the snow depth is only 50 inches, compared to 102 inches in typical years, said National Weather Service meteorologist Shad Keene, who works in the Medford office.

Irrigation districts depend on snowmelt to augment water supplies in the spring and summer.

Keene said the lack of rain and snow in the Rogue Valley is caused by a persistent high pressure system over the Pacific Ocean and West Coast. The high pressure is pushing incoming storms to the north, where clouds drop their precipitation on Washington and British Columbia.

“We missed out on a lot of storm systems,” Keene said.

For the water year that started Oct. 1, 2021, the Medford area is 25% below normal for precipitation, he said.

“We still have some months of potential precipitation ahead, but it’s going to be hard to make it back to normal, much less a surplus to get us out of this drought,” Keene said.

The National Weather Service forecast calls for rain this weekend, followed by another dry spell.

“We’re concerned and we know it affects a lot of people,” Keene said. “People’s livelihoods depend on it.”

Keene said he doesn’t know whether climate change is causing the drought plaguing the Rogue Valley. Climate change models don’t predict less precipitation for the area, although they do predict less precipitation will fall as snow and that snow will melt off earlier, he said.

Keene said some theorize that droughts can create conditions that lead to longer drought. For example, the sun’s energy can go into evaporating precipitation that falls on the ground. If there isn’t enough precipitation, the sun’s energy goes into heating up the earth.

Last year, irrigation district managers said the ground was so dry that it sucked up the rain that did fall. Without enough water to saturate the ground, rain and snowmelt didn’t run off into reservoirs.

Hampson of the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District said the canals often stay wet during the winter, but they’ve dried out. Once irrigation water starts flowing this spring, much of the initial water will soak into the canals.

“It will take more water to get the canals wet so they’re running water to the patrons,” Hampson said.

The open canal system of local irrigation districts is a chronic problem. Water seeps into the ground and evaporates into the air.

This spring, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley secured $5 million for a piping project for the Rogue River Valley and Medford irrigation districts. Hampson said he’s thankful to the senators for their work on behalf of the districts and their customers.

Piping all the irrigation canals for the Rogue River Valley, Medford and Talent Irrigation Districts comes with a daunting $2 billion to $3 billion price tag. There are no plans to carry out that massive project, although the districts have been securing funding to make smaller improvements over time.

Piping the canals would also allow the districts to pressurize the water in the system. With water pressure, more customers could switch to efficient sprinkler systems and away from flood irrigation.

“This water shortage is not a temporary problem,” Hampson said. “We need to start conserving water, and the best way to do that is to pipe it.”

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