Slow-melting snowpack assures Oregon farms water
for irrigation this summer
by Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian June 05, 2009
Oregon Department of AgricultureOregon's irrigators should be in
good shape this summer, for the most part.
With a few exceptions, Oregon's farmers should be able to count on
a decent supply of water for irrigation this summer, according to
the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
The winter snowpack has been melting slower than usual because of
relatively cool temperatures this spring. The combination has left
most reservoirs with enough water to get through the growing
season this year in a state that relies on irrigation in the
"I would use the term 'okay' to describe the summer water
outlook," Jim Johnson, the department's land use and water
planning coordinator said in a news release.
"There is a little concern for the southeast and south central
parts of the state, and maybe the Rogue Basin. But the trends are
looking better in those areas compared to the past couple of
The current water year -- which began Oct. 1 -- didn't start off
all that promising. But snow continued to fall in the higher
elevations through April, providing a snowpack that last month
ranged from 64 percent of average for the Owyhee and Malheur
basins to 163 percent of average for Mt. Hood and the Lower
Deschutes Basin, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's
Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Despite the recent warn and sunny weather, precipitation for this
time of year is 87 percent of average statewide.. The streamflow
forecasts for various basins are generally slightly below average
but still good enough to project relief for those who worried
about water shortages.
"We've had a very cool spring and much of the mountain snowpack
hasn't melted as fast as it has in the past," says Johnson.
"Reservoir storage around the state is good for the most part. The
reservoirs are either full or nearly full with the exception of
southeast and south central Oregon. In some cases, there is still
snow that hasn't yet melted."
Drought conditions later this year in some parts of the state
remain a possibility, but experts are cautiously optimistic that
it won't become a reality.
Oregon has the reputation of being a wet state. However,
irrigation is key to the state's agriculture at the time most
crops are in need of water. Oregon does not normally receive the
summer rain enjoyed by the Midwest states and other parts of the
nation. That's why what happens in the winter and spring is so
important to farmers and ranchers.
Statistics from the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture show the
importance of water. About 1.85 million acres of land in Oregon is
irrigated. While that number is down from 1.9 million acres in
2002, it still puts Oregon near the top of all states using
irrigation. Nearly 44 percent of all farms and ranches in the
state do some type of irrigation. Most of Oregon's high value
crops rely on irrigation.
"Seventy to eighty percent of the value of Oregon agriculture
comes from irrigated crop lands," Johnson said in the news
release. "Irrigation is really the key to Oregon agriculture."
The numbers may be impressive, but the Census of Agriculture shows
many parts of the state with a decline in irrigated acres.
"Irrigation acreage is trending down in general, and doing so
dramatically in some areas," Johnson said. "We are still analyzing
the data but we can speculate on some possible causes for the
Drought conditions persisting the past couple of years in parts of
Oregon have left less water for farmers and ranchers in the
summer. This might explain Lake County showing 40,000 fewer
irrigated acres, Malheur County 25,000 fewer acres, and Harney and
Klamath counties each with 16,000 fewer acres compared with 2002.
Jefferson, Deschutes and Crook counties also have had decreases in
irrigated acres. Drought does not necessarily explain the decline
during the past few years. Urban growth and recreational pressure
may account for some of that decline, the Agriculture Department
On the west side of the Cascades, Jackson, Benton, Douglas and
Clackamas counties have given up irrigated acreage, presumably due
to urban growth pressures, Johnson said.
Another reason for irrigation decreases may be attributed to
efficiency in the use and delivery of water by farmers. Oregon
ranks sixth in the nation for dollars invested in water
conservation efforts related to irrigation systems, according to a
USDA survey conducted a couple of years ago.
On the flip side, irrigation has increased in several counties due
to a variety of factors. In Eastern Oregon, Umatilla County gained
21,000 irrigated acres from 2002 to 2007 while Wallowa, Sherman,
and Wheeler counties followed suit to a lesser degree. In Western
Oregon, Polk County added 4,000 irrigated acres, while Yamhill,
Linn, Tillamook and Washington counties picked up acreage.
"There have been some increases in irrigation because of
operations with higher value crops being planted," Johnson said.
"Orchards and vineyards are replacing other crops and need that