OCHOCO IRRIGATION DISTRICT: Responsible stewardship of water supplies for farms and fish
There are still some around who remember what things were like in the Prineville valley before the construction of Bowman Dam was completed in 1961. Government reports from 1903 and earlier noted how small and warm and stagnant the Crooked River was in this region during the summer. Locals say that before 1960, the Crooked River in the Prineville valley supported no trout during the summer because the flow was so low and warm.
Prineville Reservoir changed all this and made possible one of the finest trout fisheries in Central Oregon and one of the state's top five most visited reservoirs. The normal summertime flow of the Crooked River from Prineville Reservoir to town is cool, clear, abundant and is that way only because irrigated agriculture built the reservoir to store the cold, large, winter/spring flows for release during the summer. This is not the case this year.
As everyone is well aware, the past three years of drought have been extraordinarily difficult for farmers in the region. OID patrons were allocated only 25% of their water right this year. Districts that rely primarily or exclusively on live flow are ending up significantly short, while districts that also use stored water have had to rely on those supplies earlier and more extensively than normal. OID relies mainly on stored water in both Prineville and Ochoco Reservoirs. In the end, this prolonged drought means less water for farmers, fish and wildlife.
The availability and use of Prineville Reservoir storage varies yearly based on inflows. According to the Oregon Water Resources Department, in 2022, the reservoir had the lowest maximum fill on record, dating back to the dam's creation. 2022 fill was just shy of 48,000 acre-feet, and the next lowest on record is 1992, at almost 80,000 acre-feet. 2021 was the fourth lowest on record.
Throughout its history, the district has been a strong advocate for water conservation and maximizing the benefits of this precious resource for all stakeholders. In 2014, OID, in coordination with local/state/federal agencies and conservation groups, successfully passed what is commonly known as the Crooked River Act. This legislation reallocated the contents of the facility. It made provisions for irrigation purposes, which is about 58% of the total storage capacity. The remaining up to 62,520 acre-feet (42%) is now allocated to fish and wildlife benefits. (For perspective, 1 acre-foot of water is equal to about 325,000 gallons) The Act also allowed OID to participate in conserved water projects that were not allowed previously. Finally, the Act allocated stored water to conduct the McKay Switch project, which will help restore natural flow to the middle reach of McKay Creek for the benefit of steelhead and other species.
Despite extreme and persistent drought conditions this summer, OID remains firmly committed to implementing the conservation measures outlined in the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). Adherence to the plan means that OID, the city of Prineville and other districts are authorized to continue to access what limited water supplies are available during times of drought, and district patrons can rely on these supplies with confidence based on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's approval of the HCP.
Unlike some other basins in the West, the HCP provides some water supply protections. District patrons are able to access much of their live flow and stored water supplies that are available even with the drought, while simultaneously supporting fish and wildlife habitat and remaining in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. The magnitude of this year's drought is startling, but the possibility of a drought is something we recognized and painstakingly accounted for in the design of the HCP.
We are coordinating water management in real-time with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and this coordination has made it possible to utilize the limited amount of water we have during this challenging time.
Looking forward, OID is focused on modernizing the aging water delivery system to increase water reliability and habitat restoration for Ochoco and McKay Creek. Updated irrigation infrastructure will enable the district to be more resilient to environmental changes and maximize the efficiency of water conveyance.
We are committed to tackling problems and exploring solutions with our regional partners about water management in our basin for irrigation, fish and wildlife habitat purposes.
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