DALLAS — The state’s watermaster had nothing but bad news for the Polk County County Commissions during his presentation July 20.
Joel Plahn, watermaster with the State Water Resources Department since 2014, said Polk County is in moderate to severe drought conditions and is on pace to rival 2015’s historic levels.
“We’re probably about 50 percent where we’d normally be this time of year,” Plahn said.
“I expected we’d already be regulating on Rickreall Creek by this point. The flows on Rickreall, Luckiamute and South Yamhill are matching 2015. They’re slightly above 2015. That was probably the worst year anybody can remember in a long, long time,” Plahn continued. “In 2015 and 2016, the Luckiamute Water Basin was regulated back to (water rights with) a priority date of June 22, 1964. So, there’s hundreds of water rights holders after that, and they were all given shut off notices.”
Plahn explained a watermaster distributes water use among times of shortage, utilizing the fire water use doctrine, transferring those rights from junior to senior users.
“It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen,” Plahn told the commissioners. “But the way it’s going right now, I think I’m going to start regulating that basin around the first of August. And by the end of August, if it stays the same, we’re going to have everybody shut off that’s junior to that priority date.”
Plahn’s District 22 also encompasses Yamhill and Benton counties, so he also keeps on eye on Mary’s River see what happens there.
“The only reason we’re not regulating Rickreall Creek right now is because we haven’t gotten a call for water,” he added. “One of the main users has grass seed and has not irrigated this season. Another main reason is another user has half his land in wheat and he hasn’t irrigated that yet, either.”
He doesn’t know what will happen once those crops are harvested. So, it’s wait and see for now.
Plahn also pointed out the Willamette System Core Reservoirs are at 50% of full, adding that’s 50% below the rural curve that they’re trying to meet.
“So, we don’t have water pretty much anywhere,” he concluded.
Plahn said there’s really not many remaining options. When’s there’s no water, users are certainly going to get shut off. There’s not enough for everybody to use. Farmers transfer priority dates to higher value crops. Plahn tries to get word out to them know regulating might be coming.
Since 2015, they’ve had dry summers and Augusts they’ve eyed having to regulate. But without any rain in forecast, Plahn said the Luckiamute Water Basin is so large, a few showers is enough to keep from having to regulate. So his job is to balance what happens next week and regulate enough to the senior users that they’re entitled to receive.
“I try to stay in touch with all the farmers so it’s not a surprise when it happens,” he said. “We adjust things with what they’re doing, get them prepared to transfer to secondary sources, be they reservoirs or from the Bureau of Reclamation.”
Plahn said the drought levels have just been gut punch in an already tough year.
“It stopped raining in the beginning of April. It’s really tough. It’s been hard on blueberries, and cranberries,” he said. “Then the winds came and with the heat, it blew out the filbert fields. It blew the nuts right off the trees. And that was on top of the ice storm at the beginning of the year that destroyed a lot of trees. So, it’s been one disastrous thing after another.”