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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 summer.

"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 years."

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 drop."

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 said.

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 summer water."

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