Irrigators can apply for emergency drought permits that enable groundwater pumping to supplement lacking surface water

Two months ago, Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a drought emergency for Crook County at the request of local government officials.

This past week, representatives from Ochoco Irrigation District and the Oregon Water Resources Department participated in a local “What’s Brewing?” forum to discuss what the situation means for residents in the months ahead.

OID manager Mike Kasberger explained that reservoir levels going into the summer will likely end up short of last year, prompting them to limit the water allocated for irrigation. At the end of last year, Prineville Reservoir was holding about 84,000 acre-feet of water, just 4,000 acre-feet less than average. However, unlike most years when water level trends up during the winter, they continued to decline.

“What was really concerning is if we look at our SNOTEL sites ... in February on the 30-year average, we expect to have almost 7.5 inches of water in the snowpack. We only had 2.5 inches," said Kasberger.

Consequently, in March, the OID board set an allocation of two acre-feet of water, which is only half of the full allocation. In April, they were able to raise it to 2.5 acre-feet, however Kasberger could not say whether that allocation could go any higher.

Despite the lack of water, the drought declaration has opened the door for irrigators to utilize groundwater to help make up the difference.

“The Water Resources Department can issue what are called drought emergency permits,” said OWRD Region Manager Kyle Gorman. “Folks who have water rights for surface water where, because of the drought, there is no water available in stream or the regulation of water in stream is so far back it looks as though you are not going to have any water for the summer, you can apply to the department for drought emergency permits.”

Gorman said the permits typically allow holders to pump water from their own well, and they are only good for one year as long as the drought declaration remains in place.

The discussion prompted one audience member to ask whether the permit comes with a fee. Gorman confirmed that a fee is charged and can range from $600 to $2,000. Another attendee told Gorman about a person he knew in Crook County who used their well to irrigate, which caused the neighbor’s well to run out of water.

“If that does occur,” Gorman replied, “then our department has the ability to regulate that groundwater.”

While the drought could challenge irrigators this summer, Kasberger tried to end the discussion on a positive note, stressing the cautious and judicious use of water in the months ahead.

“As long as we do all of our parts to conserve what we can, we’re going to make it,” he said.

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