It's going to be a dry summer in the North Unit
"This is probably the worst drought, low-water conditions I've seen," says Richard Macy. "And this is my 46th year of production on this farm. So, I've been around for a while."
Records support what Macy already knows: 2021 shapes up to be the worst water year ever for Jefferson County irrigators.
The Macy family has farmed their land west of Culver since 1947 when irrigation first came to the county. In 74 years, water levels in Wickiup Reservoir have never been this low. Farmers in the county depend almost completely on the water stored in Wickiup.
Macy grows primarily seed on his farm, which he runs with his son, James Macy, and nephew, Mike Macy. This year, they have only enough water to plant 1,000 of their 1,800 acres, which means they'll disappoint some of their customers.
"The companies are understanding. They know there's nothing we can do. Our hands are tied," says Mike Macy. "But they weren't happy that we aren't producing seed for them that they had planned on."
Farmers in Jefferson County have never had so little water for their crops, and yet they have never paid so much.
"Our water bill is actually higher than it's ever been in the history of me and my husband farming," says JoHanna Symons. She and her husband, Jeremy, have farmed north of Madras for 15 years.
The Symons pay for 2 acre-feet of water but will get only one foot per acre this year.
Plus, noted Symons, "We've got a mountain of legal fees trying to fight the spotted frog situation. The North Unit Irrigation District tacks it onto our bill. We have to pay our bill, or we don't get the water."
The Symons own 1,100 acres north of Madras. They grow corn, alfalfa and triticale for their cattle. This year, they have only enough water to plant 500 acres, not even half of their acreage.
In good years, the Symons sell alfalfa to other ranchers. This year, they have to buy silage from the Willamette Valley for their own cattle.
Their fallow fields earn them nothing, yet cost them money.
"The wind is severe; the topsoil is gone. The weeds take over," says Symons. "We have to spray those fields to keep the weeds down. We still have to pay our property taxes on those fields, and they're producing nothing."
The Macys spend money to cover unplanted fields with sod to keep their land from blowing away. It's not good for fields to lie fallow. "It's shown that the health of the soil is better if it has some plant material growing on it over time than just laying open," says Richard Macy.
"We're looking under every stick and stone to find additional water," say Mike Britton, who has managed the North Unit Irrigation District for 13 years. He says irrigators feel the brunt of five dry years in a row.
"The water allotment has been reduced every year since 2017," says Britton. "It's like a slow-motion train wreck."
Irrigators calculate a 1-acre-foot allotment as how much water it would take to flood an acre to the depth of one foot. The allotment has never been this low since the district started keeping record in 1976. The closest was in the drought of 1992 when allotment dropped to 1.2 acre-feet.
Even with conservation measures built into the system since 1992, dry year after dry year has taken its toll. "We had a below average precipitation year, so we're starting the year with dry soil," says Britton. "It's been so dry the snowmelt is being absorbed by the ground up in the mountains versus running off into the reservoirs and streams."
In drought years, unplanted fields can cause environmental problems. "Erosion, topsoil from wind, it's not good to breathe," says Britton. "If we get thunderstorms that come through and dump a ton of water, all that topsoil gets washed off. Sediment gets carried into ditches and drains."
As farmers struggle through arguably the worst drought since irrigation began in the county, reserving water to preserve habitat for the spotted frog and bull trout makes matters worse.
"This is all fine and dandy to release extra water for the spotted frog," says Symons, "right up until we hit a drought year."
Symons is skeptical of environmentalists. "I think it's a sue and settle tactic. They've made their living doing that. I don't think it's an honest 'do good for the spotted frog' type of situation. I think it's all based on money."
"I hear that every day, that we gave away too much," says Britton, who helped negotiate the Habitat Conservation Plan that divided water between farmers, frogs and other stakeholders.
"We didn't have a choice. We got sued in 2014 by a couple of environmental groups, and they wanted all the water, and if we'd lost that lawsuit, there'd be a lot less farmers here today."
Britton says negotiating during dry times may have helped farmers in the long run.
"If there's any silver lining in the dry and drought years, it's that we were negotiating the HCP during those years instead of ample or above ample supply years."
"It's definitely hard and frustrating," says James Macy of sharing water for habitat, "But our district is doing what they have to do to get us as much water as they can and keep everybody happy."
Britton hopes this drought doesn't put any Jefferson County farmers out of business.
"It varies by farmer. Some people can afford to buy additional water from their neighbor," says Britton. "How could you sustain your business if you're operating only at 60% capacity?"
"Jeremy talks about selling the farm all the time," says Symons. "He says he'd never farm in this area because we're last in line for the water rights. Nobody's going to buy land in this area right now."
Britton anticipates state and federal funding to provide relief for farmers.
"After living here all my life, I'm not anxious to leave or sell," says Richard Macy.
He's confident the drought will pass, and the dry years have taught Jefferson County farmers how to survive. "With sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation and pump-back systems, we have definitely been able to get more out of the water we do have."
The Symons expect their farm will survive this worst water year ever. "I believe in God, and he's made us pretty good at what we do, knock on wood, and he's made us pretty hardy and durable and tough to get through and sustain these storms."
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which played a major role in the HCP between irrigation and environmental interests, declined to participate in this story.
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