Like the previous year, Ochoco Irrigation District is facing drought conditions, but less water is stored in the reservoirs to start 2021

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Ochoco Reservoir was already getting empty last summer, as the photo above shows. Due to poor snowmelt runoff, the water level is still low.

Ochoco Irrigation District is preparing for a tough water year.

A drought has persisted in Crook County, and the mountain snowpack and subsequent runoff is not expected to provide much water to fill reservoirs that had been drying up since last year.

"Unfortunately, we don't have a whole lot of water to spread around," said OID Manager Bruce Scanlon. "It's going to be a tough year. All indicators are that we will have a similarly low runoff compared to last year."

Last year, the mountain snowpack started out promising, but winter and spring weather was low on precipitation, and when the snow began to melt, much of the runoff was soaked into the dried-out landscape. Fortunately for OID, they started that year with much more water in the reservoirs and were able to rely on those stores as the summer progressed.

This year, the reservoirs are much lower, especially Ochoco Reservoir, which is only at 10,600 acre-feet.

"Over 5,000 of that is dead pool," Scanlon said. "We would have to pump it out if we wanted to get access to it."

Prineville Reservoir, at about 86,000 acre-feet, is in better shape, but it is still well below a number that would make OID leaders comfortable going into irrigation season. So, OID customers will likely face a more restricted water allocation than the previous year.

"If we wanted to operate like we did last year, which was a tight water year, we would need 24,000 acre-feet of water (in Ochoco Reservoir) and the projections are more like 20,000 that we might get if things go well," Scanlon said. "So, we are looking at significant restrictions this year."

Some years, the irrigation season would have already been under way for about two weeks, but this year, OID is delaying the start. The next board meeting is planned for April 19, at which time Scanlon expects more decisions to get made regarding the start of the season and what restrictions will be necessary.

"We have been trying to reach out to our patrons and let them know ahead of time that we anticipate that this could be a really rough year," he said, "and we are doing as much as we can to delay the use of those stored waters, especially in Ochoco (Reservoir)."

Meanwhile, in preparation for the season, OID has begun flushing canals – but even that process has involved an extra measure of caution.

"We are using Prineville Reservoir water, since Prineville's a little bit better than Ochoco is," Scanlon said, adding that he expects to start using Ochoco Reservoir water for canal flushing after the April 19 board meeting.

Aside of Mother Nature hitting the Crook County area with an unexpected surge of rain or snow, the only other thing that might help OID going into the 2021 season is a drought declaration through the State of Oregon, which the county sought and was granted in 2020.

"If we follow through with a drought declaration, then there is some potential for damage (money) with production farmers," Scanlon said. "But apart from that, I don't know of any other help or benefit that we might be able to see."

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