Historically low water level opens door for upgrades
There is no denying that Ochoco Reservoir is historically dry.
While that is the case, Ochoco Irrigation District Manager Bruce Scanlon wants to be clear that its condition is a factor of dry weather and local crops.
"The district did exactly what it was supposed to do in controlling the water coming out of Prineville Reservoir and in utilizing Ochoco Reservoir storage to supplement that and get everybody the amount of water that they needed for the year," he said. "The operations of the district, when it gets that tight, are challenging at best."
Going into the end of last week, Ochoco Reservoir was holding 6,036 acre-feet of water, an improvement over the approximately 5,700 acre-feet of water earlier this month before winter storms hit the area.
The reservoir reached this low point, the driest it has been in more than 20 years, because Crook County endured a couple of dry years, Scanlon said. He points out that, according to state experts, the county is in a severe drought.
"Ochoco Reservoir doesn't fill every year, and when you get such a decrease in the level of reservoir every year, it takes its toll on the system," he said.
Scanlon went on to stress that the crop patterns in the region are unique and have only exacerbated the problem. He noted that a lot of the district grew hay and alfalfa last season, both of which have a higher and longer-term demand for water than other local crops.
"It's not just a lot of water at the start of the season and then it tapers off," he said. "With hay and alfalfa, they take water all year. So what we saw was a very, very dry fall and continued demand for water into and through September."
Once OID concluded its irrigation season, it continued to let 2 or 3 cubic feet of water out through October, November and December to keep water in Ochoco Creek for fish habitat.
"We didn't get any rain until recently," Scanlon said.
While the lack of water in Ochoco Reservoir was mostly bad news, it did create a window for OID to complete some work that may benefit the district at a future date.
When the Bureau of Reclamation drained the reservoir in the 1990s to make safety repairs to the dam, it moved the inlet five feet higher. To help accommodate that change, the Bureau provided OID with a barge to pump water up to the higher inlet during years when the reservoir level dropped below the inlet.
"But they didn't provide us a system to deliver the water to the tower itself," Scanlon said.
Until this year, the inlet and trash rack had always been submerged, so when the reservoir level dropped to a point where the district could access them, they decided to take advantage of it.
"We did some work on the trash rack, fitted some flanges and some housings to be able to connect 24-inch pipe," he explained.
Scanlon noted that the project was completed at a low cost, in house, thanks to "a very talented crew of welders and fabricators" on the OID staff who completed much of the work.
The modifications will enable OID to pump water from the reservoir if the level ever drops below the bottom of the 60-inch intake pipe. As dry as the reservoir got this year, there was still enough water for some to trickle out beyond the dam.
Going forward, the water level in Ochoco Reservoir is expected to climb, especially as more rain and snowstorms come to the Central Oregon area. Scanlon does not expect the reservoir to fill — after all it has historically filled only 40 to 50 percent of years — but he is optimistic.
"I would anticipate that we are going to have water. We are going to be fine," he said. "We will probably have the same as we had last year, maybe even a little more."