Crook County ranchers prepare for dry summer

Water scarcity expected upstream of reservoirs

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling


Although a wet February and March eased some drought concern in Crook County, the head of the Ochoco Irrigation District isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to make full deliveries to all 862 of his customers this year.

“We are not exactly sure how much water there will be for crops,” Mike Kasberger, manager for the district, which encompasses about 20,000 acres, said Tuesday. All the land is in Crook County, in and around Prineville, and is used for crops including hay, grains and carrot seeds, as well as pasture for cattle.

Following a dry spell in Central Oregon from November through January, Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a drought emergency for the county. The March 21 declaration will expedite transfers of water rights this summer, said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

“The drought (declaration) gives you quite a bit of flexibility,” he said.

Although the declaration will soften the impact, the drought will hit growers and ranchers, particularly those upstream of Ochoco Reservoir, which is fed by Mill and Ochoco creeks, and upstream of Prineville Reservoir, which is along the Crooked River.

“That is where we are really going to see the effects of the drought,” Giffin said.

The growers and ranchers upstream of the reservoirs rely on snowmelt and rainfall for their water, and this year there simply isn’t much snow.

Jim Wood, 55, owner of the Aspen Valley Ranch in Post, said the governor’s drought declaration will offer some relief, and he is thankful county leaders called for it, but it will still be a tough summer.

“It is going to help,” he said, “but it is not going to make water appear.”

Growers in the Mill Creek Valley typically are able to have two cuttings of hay in a growing season, said Jim Bauersfeld, 66, a hay grower there. This year he only expects to have one.

He also expects to reduce how much land he irrigates by about 25 to 30 percent. Normally he irrigates 350 acres.

Bauersfeld has been growing hay in the valley for 22 years, with last year being one of the driest.

“And this year looks like it will be as bad, if not worse,” he said.

This year’s drought also has Wood considering downsizing his operation to make it through the year. He runs about 400 cows on the 40,000-acre ranch, half of which he owns and half is leased public land. Wood has operated the ranch since 1991. That year also happens to be the last year he shrank the herd because of dry conditions.

Kasberger, the irrigation manager, said he has been with the district seven years and this is the first time he’s had to deal with a drought declaration. The district started supplying water to customers April 2. The drought will cause the reservoirs to go down more quickly than in a normal year. How quickly depends on how much rain and snow spring brings.

The National Resource Conservation Service put out a stream flow forecast for the Deschutes and Crooked river basins earlier this month. The agency, which analyzes snowpack and predicts how much water it will lead to in streams and rivers around the country, is forecasting summer stream flow around the Deschutes and Crooked river basins to range from just a quarter of average to above average for the growing season . The stream flow into Prineville Reservoir is expected to be 25 percent of average for April through September while the inflow into the Deschutes River around Benham Falls, upstream of Bend, should be 102 percent.

Bauersfeld, the Mill Valley grower, looks at the stream itself to gauge what the summer may hold. This time of year Mill Creek is usually running high and murky.

“Now it is down and crystal clear,” he said, adding he doesn’t usually see the water like that until May or June.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com