Drought could dry up part of the Crooked River early

By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin Published May 30, 2014 at 12:01AM

The Crooked River upstream of Prineville Reservoir is already running low, and portions of the river could go dry this summer because of drought.

A gauge near where the river enters the reservoir reads a tenth of normal for this time of year — 30 cubic feet per second as opposed to 300 cfs — said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

“If this holds course we could potentially see dry reaches in July, which is fairly extraordinary,” he said.

It’s not unusual for parts of the river upstream of the reservoir to go dry, Giffin said, but not until August. Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office in March declared a drought emergency in Crook County, opening the possibility of federal drought relief.

In the couple of months since, more rainfall has helped fill reservoirs around Crook County, but little snow has fallen in the mountains. The light snowfall this winter and early this spring is causing the low flow in the river and other streams.

“We are very low, but we are going to go much lower,” Giffin said. The river going dry could happen in the next 45 days, or by mid-July, he said Wednesday.

Along with the Crooked River, Mill and Ochoco creeks, which fill Ochoco Reservoir, could have portions go dry this summer, Giffin said. As of Thursday, Mill Creek was flowing at about 30 percent of average for this time of year and Ochoco Creek was at 50 percent. Last year was also dry and saw portions of the Crooked River, Mill and Ochoco creeks go dry.

The water situation in the county will most affect the hundreds of ranchers and growers who rely on water upstream of the reservoirs, tending to land around Post and Paulina. Giffin said they’ll likely be limited to one cutting of hay this year, rather than the typical two or three.

The ranchers and growers downstream of the Prinevillle and Ochoco reservoirs have a better summer outlook now than they did just a couple of months ago, said Mike Kasberger, manager for the Ochoco Irrigation District.

“We are not in great shape, but we are in better shape now,” he said. The district serves more than 850 customers on about 20,000 acres, all downstream of the reservoirs.

Kasberger said that in early April, the traditional start of irrigation season in Central Oregon, the district was looking at allocating 2 acre-feet of water per customer for the season per acre. That’s enough water to submerge an acre under 2 feet of water.

But because of late-winter and early-spring rain, Prineville Reservoir is 97 percent full, and Ochoco is 76 percent full, and the allocation is now up to 2½ acre-feet.

To put this year’s allocation into perspective, the typical allocation is 3 acre-feet of water and the allocation in a very wet year may be as much as 4 acre-feet.

Despite the improved reservoir levels, most of Crook County remains in moderate drought and the southern portion of the county is in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Although the weather forecast calls for possible thunderstorms and rainfall in the county over the weekend, it would take a large amount of rain to make up for the low snowpack, said Marilyn Lohmann, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Pendleton.

“We are not looking at anything that is really going to change that (drought) situation,” she said.

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