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NUID predicts highest levels in four years, state water scientists say that's not likely

PHOTO COURTESY SETH MCLOUGHLIN - Wickiup Reservoir on Friday, Nov. 18. The reservoir is approximately 22% full.

Water watchers at the North Unit Irrigation District are cautiously optimistic about the water supply this year.

Calculations NUID made this week put the peak level of Wickiup Reservoir at 177,301 acre feet, the highest it's been since 2017-18 when the reservoir almost completely filled at 200,109 acre feet.

District Operations Manager Gary Calhoun based his calculations on current conditions. He took the average increase over a five-day period and multiplied that average by the number of days remaining before irrigation season begins.

PHOTO COURTESY RYAN BENNEKE/THE BULLETIN - Wickiup Reservoir on October 11 was 3% full.

If those estimates hold, it will be good news for agriculture in Jefferson County. Irrigators here depend primarily on Wickiup for their water.

Kyle Gorman, Central Oregon manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, is not as optimistic. "It is highly unlikely that the Wickiup Reservoir will reach 177,301 acre feet. At this time, it is way too early to know or predict how much water will be in Wickiup Reservoir on April 1." Gorman says the inflow in the Upper Deschutes typically declines over the winter. Levels peak in August and September and drop to a low point in March. "This has to do with the timing of snowmelt," he said, "and the time it takes for that recharge pules to make it through the system."

Gorman says hydrologists will know more in January about how much water to expect in spring.

NUID agrees a lot can happen between now and when irrigation begins. The district is not prepared to set allotment levels for the season.

Calhoun remains positive, however, even hoping conditions could improve to increase flow into the reservoir. "Before (in 2021) the ground was so dry the water didn't make it to the river," recalled Calhoun. "I don't think that's the case this year."

He welcomes the early freezing temperatures this year, which he believes will increase our chances for more water this season.

Even in the best case scenario, not all of the water in Wickiup will flow to irrigators. The district will retain a minimum of 2,500 acre feet in the reservoir.

The estimate also includes 6,500 to 7,000 acre feet of water the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are storing to release when it will be most beneficial for aquatic habitat. That release poses a wild card for irrigators. Biologists might release it before or after irrigation season, which would not benefit irrigation, or during irrigation season in which case growers could also make use of that water. The district monitors the levels and calculates potential flows weekly.

Predictions in February are particularly important to farmers as they plan which crops and how many acres to plan in spring.

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