Cool temperatures and consistent rainfall in recent weeks has provided some relief to Central Oregon farmers during the first stages of the growing season. But authorities warn that recent rain may not be enough to stave off water shortages later in the year.

One or more irrigation districts could be limited this year, said Jeremy Giffin, the Deschutes Basin watermaster, due to drought conditions that have afflicted Central Oregon for several years. Limitations could result in having to curtail or shut down a district’s diversion until more natural flow becomes available, he said.

Drought has kept reservoir levels in the area at or near historic lows. Wickiup Reservoir, which supplies water to the North Unit Irrigation District, started the irrigation season at its second-lowest level, just 70% of capacity. For farmers, that means less water is available for irrigating their crops, which forces many to leave portions of their farmland fallow.

“Wickiup Reservoir is very low for this time of year and I anticipate it to be the most likely reservoir to be drained, sometime late summer or fall,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “The rest of the Central Oregon reservoirs hold enough water to get through this year.”

No district has completely run out of water since 1994, when Arnold Irrigation District was forced to shut down before the end of the irrigation season. Arnold relies primarily on live flow for its water supply, but does have some storage rights at Crane Prairie Reservoir.

In recent years, irrigation districts, including North Unit, have been forced to restrict water supplies to customers. Should a district exhaust its water supplies, the headgate where the water leaves the Deschutes River and enters the canal would be shut down for the season, said Giffin.

Most of Deschutes and Crook counties are in a state of severe drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor. A portion of Jefferson County is one level up, in extreme drought.

Recent rainstorms that have swept across the High Desert won’t have the cumulative effect necessary to rebuild the depleted supplies of water, said Giffin.

“The downpours really do not help because they are generally not widespread enough,” said Giffin. “It is the wintertime snowpack that we need since it recharges the aquifer.”

The snowpack accumulated over the 2019-20 winter in Central Oregon was 58% of average as of May 1. In order to catch up with depleted water supplies, Central Oregon will need to see some big snowfalls several years running, said Giffin.

“It takes several years to deplete the springs and several years to fill them back up,” said Giffin. “I think we need to be well above average for more than two years to get us back to normal.”

As of June 10, Wickiup Reservoir was 47% full. Water was being released at 1,200 cubic feet per second.

Climate change could be behind the dry conditions, said Larry O’Neill, an associate professor at OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

“There is a trend in the U.S. West toward longer and more frequent drought conditions. The droughts in the last 20 years or so that we’ve experienced in Oregon may be part of this long term drying trend,” said O’Neill.

In response to the dry conditions, Jefferson County earlier this month declared a state of drought. Federal and state assistance and programs could be enacted as a result of the declaration. Both Deschutes and Crook counties authorities are expected to adopt a similar state of drought .

“Some ranchers can’t utilize parts of their pasture because of the lack of water,” said Brian Barney, a Crook County commissioner. “The rains have helped but it hasn’t mitigated the long term effects of the drought.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818,

mkohn@bendbulletin.com

(7) comments

M.Kearns

We live in an arid climate with minimal precipitation, yet we turn a blind eye to the data centers upgradient from us in Prineville that a are continuously pumping out millions of gallons of pure clean water to cool their servers. This natural supply of water is being stored deep underground in ancient aquifers, which took thousands of years to accumulate. Every time we log on to Facebook and upload photos, play a video game, or use our phone, we are using up the clean water supply for future generations. When images are uploaded and data is stored, it is not being stored in a cloud – it is stored in a computer at a data center. These data centers use enormous amounts of energy and water. Until tech companies figure out a way to use recycled water, we are all guilty in depleting our most precious resource.

Data centers pose the greatest threat to the future of our region. They are pumping out our most valuable resource - the water supply for future generations of Central Oregonians. Our region receives little precipitation, and we may experience severe prolonged droughts in the future. Our emergency reserve of clean water is being stored deep underground within ancient aquifers, which took thousands of years to accumulate. The data centers are exploiting this valuable resource to keep their servers cool. Each time you log on to Facebook to upload photos, play a video game, or use your phone - you are using groundwater. Your photos and data are not being stored in some “cloud”, but in a computer server in Prineville which needs to be kept cool. This requires enormous amounts of both energy and water.

These companies did not choose Oregon for any tax break, they came for our groundwater and electric hydropower. $43 million dollars is small change to companies like Facebook and Apple; it is like giving $10 to someone panhandling on the street.

The tech companies are very clever in not revealing to the public how much actual (uncorrected) amounts of water and energy they use. They cite security reasons for not disclosing this, and use their own offset amounts when questioned. Data company executives are pros at using smoke and mirrors to get around answering in units of uncorrected amounts like actual gallons (or acre-feet) of water, and kilowatts of electricity. The solar panels around the area, and municipal improvement grants to Prineville are part of their illusion to downplay the seriousness of what they are doing to the environment.

I would like to see an analysis as well. I have looked for a comprehensive hydrogeologic model of the area, and recharge analysis to these aquifers. I can’t find one at USGS. I would think Apple and Facebook would have spent a considerable amount of money on these studies before investing in these data centers. I imagine they are not public. I don’t recall any public hearings about the environmental impact of having these data centers located here. I think we should be concerned about the impact of them on our regions stored water supply. There are really no boundaries in hydrological flows. What happens upgradient effects those downgradient, and not only those who live within the “zone of influence” of the wells being pumped.

M.Kearns

Although crop irrigation, watering lawns, and golf courses use a substantial amount of water - some of it does percolate into the soil and can recharge local aquifers. Unlined irrigation canals with no impermeable concrete, streams, and rivers also allow for some recharge to occur - not all is lost to evaporation.

Josie

Yes, and allowing Facebook , golf courses, and unmitigated growth to Bend will result in more dyer conditions of drought in the future.

Less snow = less water for aquifers and rivers.

Oregon used to be in the forefront of environmental issues, what’s happened?

Environmental impact statements are being caste aside by planners in favor of

developers interests.

CentralOregonFred

??? Facebook , golf courses, and growth in Bend has no impact on the snowpack. And agriculture is by far the biggest user of irrigation.

Josie

Of course, climate change impacts snowpack. Bend not being proactive with regard to water as a precious resource == Greater adverse effects from the inevitable increase in drought conditions. Yes, open irrigation ditches and irrigation are a huge , and inefficient water use.

M.Kearns

Crop irrigation and watering golf courses and yards does allow for some recharge of our of local groundwater supplies. If irrigation canals are unlined with concrete, some recharge also occurs - although there is certainly loss to evaporation.

M.Kearns

I agree with all of this, and would like to add that another problem is that the snowpack has been melting too fast. It needs time to slowly melt to seep into the areas of historical recharge. Like streamflows, the slower moving streams are thought to have the most effect on recharge. The big elephant in the area are of course the data centers. And they have been proliferating like crazy, and I can't find any hydrological studies, or community hearings on impacts.

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