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Irrigation districts predict one-month watering season

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Emigrant Lake east of Ashland is only 14% full this week despite April rain.
Rain helps delay start of irrigation season

With only enough water for about a one-month irrigation season, local irrigation districts are hoping April rain will help them delay the start of the season as long as possible.

“If we continue to get these storms, we’re going to want to push that start date out as long as we can so we can have water as late as possible. It’s going to be such a short season. That’s critical,” said Medford Irrigation District Manager Jack Friend.

Managers of local irrigation districts said they’ll likely decide in May when to start running water through local canals.

The irrigation season typically lasts from spring into the fall. But in recent years, districts have had to draw down local storage reservoirs due to prolonged drought. Jackson County hasn’t had enough rain and snowfall to replenish the depleted reservoirs.

In 2021, the Rogue Valley saw its shortest irrigation season ever, with the Talent Irrigation District shutting down its canals in mid-July and the Medford and Rogue River Valley Irrigation Districts closing down at the beginning of August. The shutdowns came well before harvest season for crops such as pears and wine grapes.

Water is in even shorter supply this year, district managers said.

“This is uncharted territory for us. We’ve never been in this situation before,” said Talent Irrigation District Manager Wanda Derry. “Last year was a short season, and this season’s going to be shorter.”

At the beginning of this month, the Talent Irrigation District had enough water stored for a 25-day irrigation season. The past few weeks of rain have lifted the supply to about a 28-day season, Derry said.

The Medford Irrigation District might be able to push its season to four to six weeks with heavy use of reservoirs in northern Jackson County, Friend said.

The Rogue River Valley Irrigation District hopes to have at least one month of water by pushing Agate Lake to its limits. A relatively small reservoir, Agate Lake near White City is the only reservoir in the county that is 100% full.

“Agate is not really a true workhorse of a reservoir. It’s a supplemental source. This year, we’ll make it a workhorse,” said Rogue River Valley Irrigation District Manager Brian Hampson.

The much bigger Emigrant Lake east of Ashland was only 14% full this week, a slight improvement from mid-March when it was 10% full.

Other local irrigation reservoirs didn’t gain much ground either, despite April rain. This week, Hyatt Lake was 17% full, Howard Prairie Lake was 13% full, Fish Lake was 41% full and Fourmile Lake was 22% full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In deciding when to start their irrigation seasons, districts have to consider the often-competing needs of their customers.

Friend said hay producers rely on rain or irrigation water early in the season to get their first cutting of hay. Pears and grapes can go longer before they get their first watering. But the trees and vines need water later in the season not only to produce fruit, but to survive.

Although recent rains have brought moisture to the area, Hampson said most of that water is soaking into the ground, not running off into reservoirs.

“The ground is like a sponge and it’s soaking everything up. The creeks are up slightly, but not a whole lot. We’re not gaining much supply in the reservoirs,” he said.

The National Weather Service forecasts dry weather Saturday and Sunday, a chance of rain Monday and Tuesday, and dry weather again Wednesday.

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