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The reservoir has reached water levels unseen in more than 20 years due to drought conditions

JASON CHANEY - The shore line of Ochoco Reservoir has drastically changed this summer as drought conditions persist.

In the mid-1990s, Bureau of Reclamation officials drained Ochoco Reservoir dry to complete a major Safety of Dams project.

Ochoco Irrigation District Manager Russ Rhoden says that during the project, they moved the dam's inlet from the bottom of the inlet tower, which is located at the west end of the reservoir, five feet higher.

Since that time, the water level had never dropped low enough to see the top of that inlet, or the trash rack that keeps debris from entering Ochoco Creek and the district's irrigation water supply.

Until now.

Rhoden stands at the base of the tower, a platform that is most often submerged, and peers down at the trash rack.

"The last time that was visible is when they put it in there in the mid-90s," he remarks. In a couple more weeks, when the district concludes its irrigation season, he expects more of the inlet to show.

"We are going to be at the bottom of that 60-inch pipe," he said.

The Oct. 1 end of the season is actually just two weeks earlier than most normal years, Rhoden said, which under the circumstances isn't that bad. He points out that the community is obviously in a really strong drought year, due to a combination of extremely low winter snowpack, modest spring rains, and an essentially rainless summer.

Add to that the fact that crops this year are more demanding of water than most growing seasons.

"It is more of the hay crops," he said. "Right now, there are not a lot of specialty crops in the district. Some of your grain crops, by the time you get to mid-July or the end of the July, they are pretty much done as far as irrigation."

Not so with hay crops, which tend to demand more water and for a longer duration of the season.

To conserve as much water as possible this summer, the district went from a demand system to a rate base system.

"The district normally operates on what is known as a demand system. This mode of operation has the board set an acre-foot allocation per acre in the spring of each year, and patrons order water as needed," Rhoden explained in late July before the change was made. "On a rate base, irrigators will be given a flow rate that they can order 'on' and 'off' per acre. The rate the board approved is the same rate as in the district's water right certificate, which is 5.6 gallons per minute."

At roughly 8,000 acre-feet, less than a fifth of its 44,248 acre-feet capacity, the reservoir shoreline currently lies well beyond the boat dock, and barren stretches of dried mud reveal how the water level has dropped through the summer. The last time the reservoir level dropped this low — aside of the time it was drained for the Safety of Dams project — was 1991.

Soon, because of the higher inlet, OID will no longer be able to provide irrigators water from the reservoir.

"By moving that inlet up, it basically, from an irrigation perspective, strands 5,000 acre-feet of water that prior to the fix we could have used," Rhoden said.

The Bureau tried to account for such a scenario and provided the district a barge that they could use to pump the water and direct it to the inlet.

"But one thing that didn't happen during that fix is there was no provision on how to connect the barge to the inlet," he explained.

This is a problem the irrigation district intends to fix. Now is the perfect time, Rhoden said, because after the Oct. 1 end of the season, the water level will be low enough to access the areas necessary.

"We are going to have a 36-inch pipe that is going to run out there 250 feet," he says, gesturing eastward from the tower into the reservoir. "We will be able to pump that water into this inlet."

The project won't help the district this season, but should the district ever find itself in a similar set of circumstances, this will enable them to access the extra stranded water and extend the irrigation season.

"I think the reality of it is, it is not if we will ever need that barge system, it's when," Rhoden said. "You hope that you never have to use it, but the reality is it is going to happen."

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