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Flood of opinion

As drought looms, some criticize flood irrigation
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By the end of summer, Emigrant Lake could be down to 5 to 10 percent of capacity. The ongoing drought could force more farmers to seek alternatives to flood irrigation. Jamie Lusch / Daily TidingsJamie Lusch
 Posted: 2:00 AM June 10, 2014

Farmers throughout the Rogue Valley routinely flood-irrigate their fields, prompting some locals to joke that their neighbor's pasture is better suited for raising fish than crops.

"A lot of time people turn on the water before they go to work and turn it off when they come home, but by then the water has flowed across their property and onto the neighbor's property," said Phil VanBuskirk, administrator of the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point.

VanBuskirk said he's received many anecdotal reports of farmers flood-irrigating, which causes erosion and washes away precious topsoil.

A thirst for water

Sunday: Severe drought and early irrigation withdrawals have made parts of Bear Creek lethal for juvenile salmon and steelhead

Monday: Farmers already affected by the drought expect a hot, dry summer will make matters worse

Today: Despite drought conditions, many farmers routinely flood-irrigate their fields

"Certainly the vineyard folks complain about it the most," he said.

As farmers prepare for a hot, dry summer and a worsening drought, simmering issues about flood irrigation and better conservation will come to the fore. Farmers already are forgoing planting crops or changing their watering techniques.

Those who use small amounts of water likely will complain more about others flooding their fields as local reservoirs run dry, VanBuskirk said.

"The farmers who are the most nervous about this are those in the organic arena," VanBuskirk said. "They typically don't have old water rights."

By state law, those with the oldest water rights can draw all their water before lands with younger rights get any.

Randy White of the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District said his agency for years has been working with local farmers to convert their lands from flood irrigation to other techniques, such as a pressurized system that uses less water and increases crop yields if managed correctly.

But 70 percent of farmers along irrigation ditches in the valley still use flood irrigation, White estimates.

"It's the way a lot of systems were developed 100 years ago," he said. "It worked quite well."

Those who manage flood irrigation wisely channel the water from field to field and prevent excessive runoff. Those who don't, however, can send runoff into streams, which can increase turbidity, warm the water to temperatures harmful to fish and raise pesticide levels.

Persuading farmers to switch can be difficult, but White said his agency tries to explain the benefits. Under a sprinkler or drip system, field production can increase 30 to 50 percent, and weeds are not transported as readily from field to field. And there's less runoff into streams, helping improve water quality.

Farmers who switch from flood irrigation to drip-irrigation or sprinkler systems won't lose their water rights as a result of using less than their maximum allotment, Watermaster Travis Kelly said.

"There is no penalty for using less," he said.

Kelly said the only way to potentially lose water rights is to use the water for an unauthorized purpose, or not use water for five consecutive years within the past 15 years.

Local irrigation ditch operators are keenly aware that historically low snowpacks and below-average rainfall could turn local lakes into large puddles by summer's end.

Hyatt Reservoir, which is 41 percent full, will have only 5 percent of its capacity by the end of summer, and Emigrant Lake, which is 71 percent full, will have 5 to 10 percent, water managers say. Howard Prairie Reservoir is 51 percent full; managers couldn't say just how low it will go as the summer wears on.

The Talent Irrigation District handles the bulk of water that farmers rely on during the summer in the valley.

At what point the water runs out will depend on how hot and dry the summer is.

"I think we're going to get into mid-September," said Jim Pendleton of the TID. "That's less than normal, but it should be a decent season."

Greg Stabach, natural resources project manager for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, said having reservoirs so low could spell trouble if next winter doesn't produce enough snowpack.

"The biggest issue is if we have another drought year next year," he said.

Michael Moore, vineyard manager and owner of Quail Run Vineyards and South Stage Cellars, said he's worried that he might go without water in September and October.

He said his strategy will be to hydrate soils as much as possible until the water gets cut off.

Cutting the vegetative canopy of the vines is another strategy that reduces the rate of evaporation through leaves.

Despite his water needs, Moore said he uses about 1/30th of the water of a flood-irrigated field, relying mainly on drip irrigation.

"With us, it's just about smart farming," he said. "The question for us is when they turn off the water."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.


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