Winter weather helps water outlook

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Snow and rain keep falling, increasing the levels of the reservoirs, and improving the water outlook.

SUSAN MATHENY - Mike Britton, the general manager of North Unit Irrigation District, gives the water report for local irrigators.Last year, a light snowpack and a lawsuit over the Oregon spotted frog (a threatened species), had farmers worried about the water supply for crops. But this year's winter weather has helped out a lot.

An update on the availability of irrigation water for the coming growing season was given by North Unit Irrigation District Manager Mike Britton and Deschutes Basin Watermaster Jeremy Giffin, Feb. 1, at the annual Farm Fair in Madras.

"It's been 25 years since I've seen this kind of snow," Giffin said, adding, "We have really good snowpack for this year, and that bodes well for next year."

"We weren't able to fill Wickiup Reservoir last year, but I'm forecasting we will have 175,000 to 180,000 acre feet in Wickiup at the start of the irrigation season," Giffin said of the 200,000 acre foot capacity reservoir.

Giffin's agency regulates the amount of water released from the Central Oregon reservoirs. A big change this year (due to the spotted frog court settlement) is the amount of water being released from Wickiup in the winter.

Previously, 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water was released into the Deschutes River during winter, but this winter, 100 cfs must be released to help the frog survive in winter.

In Mike Britton's remarks, he noted, "Mother Nature has blessed us with lots of snow, and people have started complaining about it, but I'm not complaining."

With above average precipitation and snow, Britton predicted, "Water supplies should be normal to above normal this year."

"Hopefully, the snowpack will continue and not melt off in April," he said, referring to what happened last year.

Operational changes to help the frog included releasing up to 600 cfs in April so the frog could breed, and having a long ramp down of water from Sept. 26 to Oct. 11, so frogs could migrate to winter hibernation areas, then setting winter flows at 100 cfs.

Britton mentioned a Ryan Ranch Meadow experiment, eight miles upstream from Bend, where a large meadow was flooded and created a successful habitat area for the frog.

"From adversity comes opportunity," he said, noting, "We can use that as a mitigation measure."

In conservation measures, Britton said the piping of irrigation lateral 58-11 (to save water) was just about completed, and a fish ladder had been completed at the North Canal Diversion Dam in Bend, which hasn't had fish passage since 1912.

Proactive steps were also taken this year to salvage fish. In the past few years, there has been public concern over fish becoming stranded when the irrigation dams shut down water flows over the winter. People were showing up with buckets to scoop fish out of puddles to try to save them.

This year, Britton said, "The Deschutes Basin Board of Control (eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon) took charge of the fish salvage and hired an environmental company to help coordinate it. It turned out well, and not as many fish died this year.

Alternative ideas

Britton said NUID was continuing to pursue water conservation projects to benefit the district and the Deschutes River, and was communicating with state and national legislators to keep them informed of the situation.

NUID is also looking at other water possibilities for farmers, since the spotted frog habitat doesn't extend into this area.

Ideas include:

. Pumping water out of Lake Billy Chinook.

. Building a new 70,000-acre-foot reservoir in an area near Deer Ridge Correctional Institution.

. Expanding Haystack Reservoir.

. Combining ground and surface water. Pumping ground water to make up surface water losses.

At the end of his report, Britton appealed for people interested in a job with NUID to apply. "We have 26 employees, who are baby boomers and will be placing ads for employees as they retire," he said.