Drought prompts a two-week shutdown
Water operations for North Unit Irrigation District have been made on a day-to-day basis due to the current drought, according to NUID Executive Director Mike Britton.
"Water operations ran until Sept. 22, then river conditions changed and we were out of storage at Wickiup Reservoir," Britton said.
By comparison, he noted another shortage occurred in 2018, when water levels dropped 10-20 cubic feet per second, per day. "But in 2020, the water dropped 300 CFS overnight, and nobody knows why," Britton said.
He said he had been warning Jefferson County growers all season to "Keep an eye on what's going on, because things can change." Farmers were left wondering exactly how long water would be available, and many planted only some fields, while letting others lie fallow.
Britton estimated 30-40 percent of the fields in Jefferson County were sitting fallow this year, and also producing weeds that could create problems next year.
NUID announced it was going to shut irrigation water off for eight days, but reopen again in October. Instead, water deliveries were turned off for 15 days, from Sept. 17 through Oct. 1.
"Haystack Reservoir was really drawn down and we were trying to refill it during the shutdown," Britton said. Normally, Haystack holds 4,000-5,000 acre feet of water, but last week contained just 2,156 acre feet.
While the reservoir was dropping, Britton confessed, "I went out to try to find a couple of fishing rods I lost when my canoe tipped over." (He didn't find them).
With irrigation water being delivered again, NUID doesn't anticipate Haystack running out of water, as long as the demand from farmers remains low.
Asked if NUID can limit the amount of water growers use in this situation, Britton said, "No. The farmers have their allotments, and the district added one-tenth acre-foot per acre during the season."
At the beginning of the irrigation season, water allotments were set at 1.25 acre-feet per acre for Deschutes River lands, and 0.60 acre-feet per acre for Crooked River lands.
NUID was able to grant farmers the extra one-tenth acre foot of water because Central Oregon Irrigation District in Prineville shut off one canal on Oct. 1, to begin a 7.9-mile piping project, and another canal on Oct. 5.
"That gave NUID more river flow. Everything we're diverting now is river flow," Britton said.
The 100 CFS of water required to be released from Wickiup for spotted frog habitat happens in the winter. "Even with Wickiup empty, there's still 520 CFS coming out (from river running through), so we are able to meet that 100 CFS," he said.
Water was turned back on for Jefferson County farmers Oct. 2, and they can continue to order water until Oct. 22, when the irrigation season ends.
"In the 12 years I've been here, that's the longest NUID has run into October," Britton observed, adding, "We also need to start storing water in Wickiup. We're delivering water now that we typically would be storing."
Along with local farmers, he was hoping the predicted precipitation would fall last weekend. "It's been a long, dry summer," he said.
For the first time in years, NUID won't be working on a piping project during the winter.
"In the past 12 years, there's only been one year we haven't put pipe in the ground. There will be no piping this year, and now we'll be able to catch up on maintenance items we've put on the back burner," Britton said.
When the irrigation season ends, the ditch riders become maintenance men. A big project this year will be pulling out the pumps at the Crooked River Pumping Station and installing a variable frequency drive system.
Currently, the pumps at the Crooked River station are either all on or all off. NUID is required to maintain specified river flow levels and can't pump more than that. So, if they are close to the limit, a crew member has to travel to the pumping station and shut a pump off.
"With a variable frequency drive, the motor stays on and modulates (the power) to compensate for the increase and decrease in the river. We will actually gain water," Britton explained.
Other maintenance includes cleaning and burning weeds along irrigation ditches and repairing canals. "The main canal in Bend takes a lot of maintenance because its lining cracks and breaks," he said.
Looking at the outlook for next year, Britton said, "That's the $64,000 question. It depends on what kind of winter we have and the ability to take advantage of water savings from the COID piping project."
"It's left up to Mother Nature and time. We're in a pretty deep hole now, and we need a series of good winters to get back to normal," Britton said, hoping for a cool, wet winter.
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