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Water might outlast drought

September 3, 2005

Back in April, when the threat of one of the worst droughts in Hood River County’s recorded history still loomed in the uncertainty of guesswork, Dave Compton, manager of Middle Fork Irrigation District, made the district’s 420 water users a deal:

Sell us your water rights for one season and we’ll pay you about $50 for each acre of land you don’t irrigate.

Aside from replacing sprinkler systems and hand-line nozzles, it seemed the best solution for what looked like would be a season of empty river beds and brown fields.

A few patrons took the district up on its deal, including John and Christina McGhee.

The McGhees had moved to their 22-acre alfalfa and hay farm in Parkdale from Portland five years ago. And each year they’d cut and sell about 40 tons of alfalfa in three separate harvests.

Accepting the deal would mean their field would produce just 30 tons of the hardy crop and two cuts, 25 percent less than average.

For the McGhees, however, foregoing a cut might mean saving a few fish.

“It’s a side business,” Christina said. “Thank goodness. We’d be in serious trouble if it wasn’t. We’re just happy to be able to provide alfalfa to our clients. We could have sold it for more, because there’s so much less of it. But we didn’t want to do that to people.”

Thanks to this adaptation and other solutions, the Middle Fork Irrigation District and the 420 people who rely on its services for irrigation water are surviving Hood River County’s worst drought since 1977.

With just 28 days remaining in the irrigation season, Compton and other Middle Fork water managers are cautiously optimistic their supply will last through Sept. 30.

“We’re holding our own,” Compton said. “We’re actually in a little better shape now than this time last year.”

Still a threat —

But the threat of exhausting water supplies is still very real.

When the Natural Resources Conservation Service last measured the snowpack for the Mount Hood basin in June, the readings showed it was just 25-35 percent of normal – the lowest in Oregon. Precipitation was just 66 percent of average.

Now, all the snow is long gone. And with the exception of some underwater springs and the county’s reservoirs, most of Hood River’s irrigation water is draining off glaciers – a mixture of ice, rock and dirt.

The Elliot and Coe glaciers are largely what feed the Middle Fork’s water supply.

“When it gets warm, those things are ripping,” Compton said. “And they bring with them a tremendous amount of sediment. In our situation, we let a lot go by because we do have the reservoir – Laurance Lake.”

Farmers Irrigation District and its 1,750 customers have been able to lean on the Kingsley Reservoir during this season of low river flows.

Tough remedy —

But the East Fork Irrigation District hasn’t enjoyed such a contingency plan. It has no reservoir. And the water that supplies 9,600 acres of land and 900-plus accounts with irrigation water comes directly from the East Fork of the Hood River. In the last month, silt and sediment have overwhelmed the East Fork, making it gray and unusable.

The operation to restore the water’s usability is extensive.

Up a gravel road, near Toll Bridge County Park, is the district’s sand trap.

It’s a wide, flat structure placed at the end of a slow moving diversion canal. Water gurgles from the stream into the long and narrow individual pools of the sand trap. It looks like several narrow outdoor swimming pools placed alongside one another.

A man nicknamed “Boy” is up there, pushing dump-truck-size piles of silt into a 10-foot-high, 300-yard-long wall of it.

Every morning for the past three and a half weeks, the Hanel Development Group (HDG) employee claws 15 to 30 dump-truck loads of silt out of the canal with the crane. If he didn’t do this, silt and sand would have choked off the watersupply to 9,600 acres of farmland a month ago.

“We were trucking it down there until we ran out of room,” he said, pointing downstream of the sand trap. “Then we put it up here. We’ll keep piling sand up here until we run out of room. Hopefully by then, they’ll shut the water off.”

The wall of sand that is here, he says, is just part of what they’ve already removed from the river. They’ve already transported dump truck loads of it to a site on Neal Creek Road.

Last year, HDG (contracted by East Fork Irrigation to maintain the sand trap) removed built-up silt from the canal just three or four times, says HDG manager Darren McCafferty. They removed 5,000 cubic yards of it in all in 2004. And they cleaned nearly all of it out of the trap.

This year, the process began on July 30. And it has escalated to the point that HDG is removing as much as 800 to 1,000 cubic yards of silt and sediment a day.

By Sept. 30, the end of the irrigating season, McCafferty and East Fork Irrigation District manager John Buckley predict, HDG will have removed at least 25,000 to 30,000 cubic yards of silt and sediment from the diversion canal.

And that’s not all of it.

“This year we got so much and it’s so continuous we have sand to deal with every day, all day, seven days a week,” McCafferty says. “And we’re not able to get all of it. We’re trying to get as much out as we can, but we just can’t get all of it.”

In two years or so —

Low, silty streams are of course stressful on fish.

On Thursday, the Hood River at Tucker Bridge had just 163 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water rushing past it. That’s less than half of what recorded history considers average for this time of year and 15 cfs lower than it’s been in 46 years, according to the United States Geological Survey.

These record-low river levels are coinciding with the return of spawning fall Chinook and Coho, both of which as of this spring are on the Endangered Species List.

“What typically happens at Hood River is we don’t get any recharge (significant rainfall) until the end of October,” said Rod French, fish biologist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But we have our fall spawning fish (Coho and Fall Chinook) that start arriving in the first part of September. Those are the fish that really suffer. The drought is also difficult on other fish. But the ones that are spawning have very little habitat are suffering the most.”

As species, native Coho and Chinook have, of course, dealt with droughts before. And they’ve adapted. So, says French, the drought probably won’t cause significant fish mortality. Instead, the river’s extremely low levels will eradicate spawning beds and concentrate fish populations.

“Egg hatchings will be low,” French concluded. “Juvenile survival is low. A couple more years is when we’ll really see the effects.”

To minimize the low streamflows’ impact on fish, Middle Fork Irrigation District began releasing up to 30 cfs from its reservoir, Laurance Lake, into the Clear Branch of the Middle Fork on Thursday.

“Fish. Farms. Family. And the future,” Middle Fork manager Compton says. “We call it the ‘Four Fs. We’re constantly trying to balance that. Because all those things need water.”

All year, Farmers Irrigation District (FID) has been trying to pinpoint the balance between its own operating budget, the 1,750 people it serves and the fish it knows it needs to protect.

A costly effect —

The solution it has executed has been costly.

To leave enough water for fish, Jerry Bryan, district representative for Farmers Irrigation District said the district has ignored the amount of hydroelectricity it usually generates.

“That has a serious impact on our annual revenue and that is the source of our operating funds for the balance of the year,” Bryan said. “By the end of summer, we will have lost out on $250,000 to $500,000.”

That money, says Bryan, allows the district to pay its service debts and reduce water costs to its 1,750 water users.

The drought has also forced Farmers Irrigation to rotate its water supply to the upper district – six days on, three days off.

“Normally we are able to provide full irrigation rights to every one in the district throughout the entire season without impacting hydrogenation and without impacting flows in the river,” Bryan said.

Still, if all goes as it has been going, Bryan expects the district’s water supply to outlast the irrigation season.

“The drought is really bad,” he said. “The worst ever. But we’re getting through it. Not in perfect style. But we’re getting through it.”

*****

Farmers Irrigation District will be lecturing on different strategies for water conservation this fall. Log onto the district’s Web site at www.fidhr.org for more information.

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