Owyhee Dam

Water is released from the Owyhee Reservoir. Water managers in southeastern Oregon are hopeful the amount of water in the reservoir will continue to build through the rest of the winter.

Coming off a painful drought year in 2018, irrigation districts across Oregon are relying on ample rain and snow to refill overtaxed reservoirs and guarantee enough stored water for farms and ranches.

A new report from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service shows that, while some areas are ahead of others, there is still some catching up to do.

The NRCS released its January Oregon Water Supply Outlook, revealing a mixed bag of conditions statewide. While the overall mountain snowpack is lagging behind at 73 percent of normal, parts of Eastern Oregon are in much better shape, including near-average snow levels in the Malheur, Owyhee, Harney, Lake County and Umatilla basins.

It is a different story in Central Oregon and west of the Cascade Range, where snowpack is averaging just 66 percent of normal.

"We have picked up snow," said Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor for the NRCS in Portland. "But in the Cascades, it's primarily been at the higher elevations, at 5,000 to 6,000 feet."

Mountain snowpack is crucial because it acts as a natural reservoir to gradually replenish streams and irrigation reservoirs throughout the spring and early summer.

With the entire state already mired in drought, Oviatt said it will take more to fully recover. The three-month forecast does not promise much in terms of relief, with the Pacific Northwest expected to see greater odds of higher temperatures and lower precipitation.

"We're starting with that deficit, and to overcome that, we need above-normal conditions," Oviatt said. "Right now, we're not receiving that, and we're not receiving the signals that is going to be the case."

Most of Oregon's major reservoirs were averaging 60-80 percent of normal levels by the end of December, according to the NRCS. That has raised concerns at irrigation districts heading into the 2019 season.

Mike Britton, manager of the North Unit Irrigation District in Madras, Ore., said low flows last year on the Deschutes River prompted water users to rely heavily on Wickiup Reservoir, which dropped to its lowest level in 50 years by mid-September and prompted the district to shut down for a week.

As of Jan. 10, Wickiup Reservoir was less than half full, with just 73 percent of normal snowpack in the Upper Deschutes Basin.

"It'll be tough to rebound from where the reservoir ended this past summer to a full reservoir in April when we start up again," Britton said.

Jay Chamberlin, who manages the Owyhee Irrigation District in southeast Oregon, said the Owyhee Reservoir is also down considerably, at about 258,000 acre-feet in storage. Normally, the reservoir carries over between 300,000 and 400,000 acre-feet of irrigation water into the next season, and the district like to see at least 500,000 acre-feet to ensure they can meet farmers' demand.

"It is a concern, of course," Chamberlin said. "We would like to have a little more savings in the bank just to make sure that the growers get their allotment of water they need."

Fortunately, Chamberlin said snowpack in the Owyhee Basin is keeping pace with average, though he knows that could change.

"It's a little too early to panic, but by the same token we're very cautious and concerned about this snowpack holding up," Chamberlin said. "We've got to have that snowpack to equate to stream flow and reservoir storage."

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