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Fall irrigation helps determine Jefferson County farm production during following summer

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS
 - Water pushes through the gate at the North Unit headworks in Bend on Oct. 1, on its way to Jefferson County fields.

Shortly after dawn Friday, Oct. 1, the gates at the headworks to the North Unit Irrigation canal open a few inches. The Deschutes River jets through the crack then roils down the spillway eagerly on its way to farmers equally eager to bring its life back to their fields.

After a scorching summer — record heat, record dry — farmers in Jefferson County get one last gulp of water for their crops.

The NUID starts delivering water to farmers Oct. 6 with plans to shut off Oct. 20. The board will decide the exact cutoff at their meeting Oct. 12.

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - Gary Calhoun, NUID operations manager, says it takes three to six days to prime the canals and lateral ditches before the system can deliver water to farmers.Gary Calhoun, NUID operations manager, says the district will give farmers enough water to get their fields as wet as they can for a couple of weeks. Then, "We've got to start storing up the water as soon as possible."

Seventy percent of irrigation water for NUID farmers comes from the water stored in the Wickiup Reservoir near La Pine. Wickiup ran out of water this year and NUID shut the system down Aug. 23.

This opportunity for NUID comes as the Central Oregon Irrigation District shuts off its water for the season. For two weeks, Jefferson County farmers will irrigate their fields with the natural stream flow COID would have pulled from the Deschutes River.

"Everything that's happening now is for next year," says Trevor Derstine of Red Stone Ranch. "The plant decides now how happy it's going to be next spring."

This water comes far too late and too little for what farmers need. Typically, irrigation sprinklers run through mid-October.

"Very concerning," says Derstine. "That's six weeks of early growing." He's usually watering back during those six weeks, watering the fields he's recently planted, watering the perennial grasses harvested over the summer.

The lack of water and extreme heat killed some of those grasses. Derstine says he'll have to spend money to replant, "Eighty acres for sure, maybe 160."

This October water may be late, but it's something, and Derstine will take it.

"It's all about the soil," he says. "You think of your soil as a battery, I'm going to try to charge my battery with it."

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - Collin Cowsill, water operations specialist for the North Unit Irrigation District, opens the gates diverting water from the Deschutes River into the canal that feeds water to farmers in Jefferson County.Derstine says this last year was a disaster. "I should have gotten 2,000 pounds of seed per acre and I got less than 500 per acre. I should have gotten eight to nine tons of hay and I got maybe three."

Still, he may have done better than neighboring farmers because he has wells to supplement what he gets from the district.

"I still have very much to be thankful for. God is good," says Destine. "I have other income that I depend on."

"Any moisture helps," says farmer Evan Thomas of the recent rains. "We had some grass we had watered back prior to the irrigation going off and they were drying out and that gave them a little more life. So that's good."

He says the timing of the water cutoff means fewer options for next year. "People were not able to plant blue grass this year. The reseeding would happen the end of August, the first of September, so that window closed."

Thomas welcomes this October water, he'll used it to water in his perennials, timothy grass and peppermint, but the water he didn't get this fall sets up next year to be even worse than this year.

This season he planted only 547 acres, not even half of his 1,214 acres. Next year he'll plant only 290, less than a quarter of his fields.

This is unchartered territory. Farmers in Jefferson County have never had to do with such little water before, since irrigation arrived in the mid-1940s.

"The blue grass that people have not watered at all and are going to water when the water comes back on," says Thomas, "we really don't know what's going to happen with the production fields. They're not dead, we just have never done this before."

Thomas expects matters to get worse before they get better.

"The drought of 2019, 2020 and 2021 are very devastating." Thomas said it will take more than one good year of precipitation to make up for the years of water deficit. "We need (a snowpack of) 200% of normal to do us any good."

"We can't survive on the amount of water that we had this year. Long term that will never happen," says Britt Spaulding, general manager of Helena Agri-Enterprises.

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS
 - Water returns to the North Unit canals, like this one along Bear Drive, this week and farmers will get deliveries from Oct. 6 through Oct. 20. Fall watering is vital for following summer production."I think people will continue to learn more efficient ways to do things."

Some outcomes surprised Spaulding this year.

"I thought there would be very little chance that much blue grass would carry forward because they didn't have water to water it back like normal," says Spaulding. "There's more grass that stayed in than I thought would."

Some growers took a chance and planted carrot seed. "Carrots were more resilient than they thought," says Spaulding. "I think most of the carrots that were planted worked out."

Higher prices for crops offset some of the production losses for growers and informs what they plant.

"Because the Willamette Valley had very poor grass yields this year, the price of all grasses has close to doubled," says Spaulding. "Where nobody here grew rye grass before, I think there's some rye grass planted this fall."

Expect to see more wheat in Jefferson County next year. The price has more than doubled and wheat requires less water than other crops. Some farmers, including Thomas, will plant wheat in the spring.

Spaulding says lack of water this summer and fall means fewer acres to harvest next year, but these lean years taught growers new things.

"Farmers are pretty resilient and innovative," he says. "They are looking at different things to grow."


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