Fallowing fields has become an unwanted habit for farmers in Jefferson County. Phil Fine has been doing it three years running.
Fine, who grows primarily carrot and grass seed plus some alfalfa and barley, is leaving a quarter of his fields this year unplanted, or fallow, because of water restrictions caused by prolonged drought. He did the same last year and the year before that.
“It’s kind of difficult, actually. A foot and a quarter (of water) is not enough for this country,” said Fine, a North Unit Irrigation District patron and board member. “You try to be as efficient as you can, and you fallow a bunch of ground.”
Most farmers in the North Unit this year are allocated just 1.25 acre-feet of water, compared to 1.5 acre-feet a year ago.
When water supplies are plentiful, patrons can receive two acre-feet of water.
An acre-foot of water is the amount of water to cover 1 acre of land in 1 foot of water.
“These levels of allocation haven’t been seen since the early 1990s,” said Mike Britton, North Unit’s general manager.
North Unit farmers have adapted to the tight water allotments by investing in water-efficient sprinkler systems and nozzles.
The water efficiencies aren’t enough to make up for the deficit this year — Fine said most of his fellow farmers are fallowing between 20% to 40% of their fields this year.
Fallowing fields itself is complicated because farmers run the risk of not idling enough land and then running out of water. More problematic is that the entire district could run out of water.
Wickiup Reservoir, which was built to store water for North Unit Irrigation District, has dropped to 34% of capacity as of Tuesday. The reservoir has a capacity to hold 200,000 acre-feet of water but currently has just 67,700 acre-feet.
The low level is largely due to a low starting point at the beginning of the irrigation season. The reservoir was just 70% full at the end of March, the time of year when irrigation work begins.
“Most were expecting this type of situation for this time of year given where things started,” Britton said. “Obviously, we’d like to see a lot more in the reservoir at this time of year, but overall, basin conditions have been poor at best.”
Wickiup’s travails date back to 2015, when low snowpack in the Cascades prevented the reservoir from filling up the following year. Average snowfall in the subsequent years hasn’t been enough to fill the reservoir.
Britton said the irrigation districts have been coordinating efforts this year to conserve as much water as possible. Daily conversations between the districts are held to improve operations and efficiencies, he said.
Fine, the North Unit farmer, said he is able to track his water use online and compare it to where he was a year ago. His farm used more water this spring compared to last year due to dry conditions this year.
“This year, it’s a whole different scenario,” Fine said. “It was bone dry this spring. We used two irrigations when normally we used one, to get the ground soaked up.”
Fine said he and other farmers will need to be extra conservative with water use for the rest of the year, not only to get them through
autumn but also to keep some water in Wickiup to serve as a base for the coming winter.
“We think we can make it to the end (of the irrigation season), but the end could come early, we don’t know,” Fine said. “Once we are out of storage, we are pretty much done.”