TID water ‘more than likely’ to turn on for limited time

Emigrant Lake southeast of Ashland was 12% full as of April 5. Ashland.news photo by Bert Etling
April 6, 2022

Talent Irrigation District president: ‘This is kind of new territory’

     By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

TALENT — Water deliveries are “more than likely” for patrons of Talent Irrigation District this season, but with the potential for an historically shorter period, if it happens at all, according to Mike Winters, president of the district board of directors.

About one dozen patrons filled the small meeting room and spilled out into the hallway in the district office in Talent on Tuesday morning. There to share their concerns and ask questions about the drought and its impact, all attendees were given the opportunity to share their thoughts on the upcoming irrigation season. Some aired concerns about how to keep their farming and orchard operations going this spring and summer. 

The logo of the Talent Irrigation District. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

“More than likely we’ll be able to turn it on, it’ll just be a (for a) restricted amount of time,” Winters told Ashland.news following the meeting. “It’s the worst drought in 1,200 years, is what they’re saying … on the West Coast or across the Midwest, too.

“If the decision is to open it up for 25 or 30 days, whatever the number ends up being … it’s going to be a rat race,” Winters added later in the meeting.

TID is currently 3,300 acre feet below the total storage on hand at this time last year, according to Wanda Derry, district manager. In 2021, that was about 15,000 acre feet on April 1, according to a chart on the district website, which shows in an average year, there would be more than 80,000 acre feet of water on hand.

The district has 13,155 acre feet in storage, but due to the unprecedented megadrought, has yet to decide officially on water delivery this season. Derry said it usually takes between 50,000 and 55,000 acre feet to run a full irrigation season. The district is fed by three reservoirs: Hyatt Lake, Howard Prairie Lake, and Emigrant, all of which are currently extremely low for this time of year. Levels were at 14, 11 and 12% of capacity, respectively, as of April 5.

“This rain helped,” Derry said Tuesday. About a half-inch of rain fell on the area Monday. “We gained like 350 acre feet in all three reservoirs (combined) from yesterday to today, but we still need it to keep coming.”

The district hopes more water accumulates this month before a vote is taken to consider whether and when to start deliveries.

Talent Irrigation District board members, from left, Jeff Hogan, Jeff Bohn and Mike Winters (board president) at Tuesday’s board meeting. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

Irrigators speak out

Winters and fellow district board members Jeff Hogan and Jeff Bohn, along with Derry and assistant manager Bo Bergren, heard from a room full of attendees on the prospective impact of having no water at all this summer, or not enough to satisfy their crops.

One patron, the term the district uses for its customers, asked about the option of keeping some water now and saving the rest for next year, but wondered about the losing water to evaporation in the meantime.

“I’m not a scientist, but the weather plays into it,” Winters responded. “It depends how many 90-degree days and 100-degree days (we have).”

The patron said, “if it’s going to go anyways (to evaporation), then you might as well run the canals.” Winters responded affirmatively.

Other patrons expressed concern about patrons they believe have taken more water than they were allowed in prior years.

The district emphasized their ditch riders, who patrol water usage, are not tasked with enforcing water theft, which they anticipate. The area watermaster, who works for the Oregon Water Resources Department, is tasked with handling such situations, along with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

“You’re going to still deal with people that can come out there with a water truck and throw a hose in the canal,” Winters said. “You still deal with people … that’ll cut off the chains on the headgates and turn it on — This is kind of new territory because in the past, there’s been some short years … by being short, that was whether you turned the water off on Oct. 5 or whether you turned it off maybe second week of September.

“There hasn’t ever been a time where we’ve dealt with 25 to 30 days of water and you’re trying to meter it out to all these folks and the different crops that they grow,” Winters added. 

“And so it’s like a feeding frenzy when you turn those canals on and then you’ve got people who are going to want to grab all the water they can … you’re going to deal with theft.”

Patrons are asked to call the district office if they see excess water being used, and TID will pass along the report to the watermaster’s office.

John Casad of Talent shared his concerns about whether the district would turn on, then turn off, then turn on the water supply as it did in 2021, as well as whether the district might store water for next year.

“If you’ve got it, use it, and we’ll deal with next year when next year comes,” Casad said. “I think we should plan for next year to be dry, too.”

A representative from Bear Creek Orchards in Medford shared their concerns about the impact of another dry year on pear crops.

“Those who’ve been around a long time think that there’s orchards everywhere, but I would tell you that acres of orchards here in the (Rogue) Valley has diminished greatly over the last five years,” said Matt Borman, orchard operations manager of Bear Creek Orchards in Medford. “Even though we may be the most visible, we’re not necessarily the largest acreage any longer.”

Borman said the orchards navigated 2021 in “survival mode,” with the loss of the majority of the pear crop.

“We’re hoping to survive another year so that we can try again next year,” Borman said.

Borman said he would rather keep the canopy small and try to “eke” some water out to maintain that.

“If the canal was piped and we had a little water throughout the season, that would be ideal,” he said. “Unless you’re talking four, five, six weeks of water, I’m not sure the survival equation changes drastically.” 

USDA service center in Central Point offers aid

Glenn Archambault, Jackson County’s representative for the Farm Service Agency, urged TID patrons to seek out aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“There is some financial assistance out there,” he said. “I highly recommend that you consider contacting them if you aren’t already.”

The Oregon Drought Assistance Program rolls out in mid-April to help those impacted cover the agricultural losses experienced last summer, according to a memo from Jackson Soil & Water Conservation District.

The Oregon Legislature has allocated $1.5 million to the Farmer and Rancher Disaster Relief Fund, with up to $30,000 grants available for eligible applicants. 

TID to process patron concerns, suggestions

Winters told Ashland.news following the meeting that he and board members would be processing patron comments in coming days and weeks.

“The point of asking those questions is to try to get a ‘flavor’ because there’s such a wide diversity of crops from hay and cow people that want water in May and June,” Winters said.

“Then you have the pear and vineyard folks that are more wanting water in July and August,” Winters added. “So when you have a finite amount of water and you’re trying to apply that standard equally and fairly to everyone … it’s a bit of a process.”

Winters said the amount of water that could be available now and in May, if and when TID turns on the water, would fluctuate with rainfall and precipitation.

“You’ve got wine and pear growers that potentially could lose all their vines and trees … because there’s no water and there’s 100-degree heat for two months,” Winters said.

Tough decisions ahead

Though not as likely of a scenario, If TID can’t turn on the water supply at all this season, Winters said that would be setting “precedence.”

“The decisions aren’t pleasant because they affect people’s livelihood,” he added, “and the decisions that are going to be coming down the pike next year are going to be tougher than the ones this year.” 

TID patrons include some facilities at Southern Oregon University as well as the city of Ashland and its municipally owned Oak Knoll Golf Course. 

Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission Executive Director Michael Black told an APRC subcommittee that advises the commission on the golf course earlier this month that he’s planning for no water from TID, though the district has not yet made an announcement.

More information about possible aid is available on the Oregon Community Food Systems Network’s Farmer & Rancher Disaster Relief Grant Program and Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District websites.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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