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Water shortage threatens Rogue Valley crops

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMike Naumes checks the growth of pear in the Suncrest Orchard in Talent Saturday morning.
Irrigation water could run out before harvest time

A severe water shortage could endanger crops across the Rogue Valley this season, from pears to wine grapes to marijuana.

Local irrigation districts may run out of water around Aug. 1 ― well before most crops are harvested.

The irrigation season typically lasts into September.

“There are so many unknowns right now. It’s a really difficult situation and unprecedented in our valley,” said Mike Naumes, president of the pear and grape business Naumes, Inc. “I’ve been in this business for 50 years, and we’ve had some close calls, but never like this situation.”

A drought last year forced local irrigation districts to nearly drain reservoirs to get through the growing season.

There wasn’t enough snowpack or rainfall to replenish depleted reservoirs over the winter and this spring. Despite the past week of sporadic rain, the area is still in drought conditions, with many reservoirs at historic lows.

Howard Prairie, Hyatt Lake and Emigrant Lake levels are half of what they were in the 2020 drought year and hold only one-quarter the water they would store in an average year, according to irrigation districts.

Naumes said the harvest on most pear varieties grown in the Rogue Valley starts in mid-August and continues into late September.

Pears need water to reach market size.

Naumes said irrigation districts are working hard to figure out how to make the water last longer, but it’s an uphill battle. Growers everywhere will also have to do their part by conserving water.

“Figuring out ways to stretch the water into late August is really critical. If we can get that far, the damage won’t be too bad,” he said.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMike Naumes checks the growth of grapes through the family vineyard off Suncrest Rd Saturday morning in Talent.

Naumes said orchardists could reduce stress on their trees by cutting off some of the unripe fruit this spring, but they’re facing a labor shortage and don’t have enough people to do the work.

Naumes Inc. brings in workers for the fall harvest through a federal immigrant worker visa program. But the process takes so long the company would have had to apply in February to bring in workers to cull fruit this spring, Naumes said.

“Now it’s too late,” he said.

Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards near Talent said he doesn’t expect to get a grape crop this year. In order to save his vines from drying out and dying, he may prune off most of the shoots that sprout.

“People who try to get a crop will be risking their vines,” he said.

Moore said he’ll wait until a few weeks before he loses irrigation water to prune off shoots, leaves and grape clusters ― just in case late summer rain saves his crop.

“We’re waiting until the 11th hour. We’re holding off for a miracle,” he said.

Without enough water, grapes shrivel up on the vine.

Irrigators have different opinions on whether low snowpack and long, hot summers represent a new normal as the climate changes, or if the Rogue Valley will cycle back to a wetter, colder weather pattern.

Moore, whose mother and father started farming near Talent more than 30 years ago, said he believes the climate is warming.

Dennis O’Donoghue of Celtic Moon Vineyards outside Eagle Point said he usually harvests his grapes from mid-September until the end of October.

Although this spring was dry, the hot weather accelerated his vines’ growth. He hopes to get through most of his harvest during September. Vines need water late in the growing season, but the most important time for irrigating is when the grapes are still tiny and green, O’Donoghue said.

Hot weather in August could still prompt him to thin grape clusters and cut back vegetation from the vines, he said.

Several local ranchers said they aren’t likely to get a good second cutting of hay this year. They’re selling off cattle due to an expected shortage of water and feed.

Obie Strickler, chief executive officer of the marijuana company Grown Rogue, said marijuana plants need water into August and September, when they are in their valuable flowering phase. An Aug. 1 water cutoff could hurt outdoor growers, who often harvest into mid-October.

“It’s going to have a big impact. It’s not just cannabis. It’s across the agricultural community, from pears to alfalfa to hay,” Strickler said.

Medford-based Grown Rogue gets marijuana from two indoor facilities, plus an outdoor site with secure, private water and a second outdoor site fed by irrigation district water, Strickler said.

The company is better positioned to withstand the water shortage than those that rely exclusively on irrigated outdoor marijuana or hemp crops.

Strickler said he has confidence in his production team, but the business will still have to manage the challenges of the water shortage.

“A lot of people have their livelihoods ― including me and my wife ― in their businesses. It’s going to be tough for the whole valley,” he said.

The water shortage will likely reduce the amount of marijuana that is harvested this year, reducing supply overages from the area. That could cause prices to go up, benefiting those in the industry who manage to produce a product, Strickler said.

Continuing water shortages have caused some Rogue Valley residents to ask whether the burgeoning marijuana and hemp industries are straining water supplies.

Jack Friend, district manager for the Medford Irrigation District, said legal marijuana and hemp operations generally aren’t a problem.

“In our district, if a flood-irrigated hay pasture is converted to drip-line irrigation for hemp, we notice a substantial reduction in water use,” he said.

Hemp and marijuana crops often have a similar impact as vineyards that are watered via drip-line irrigation, he said.

But some illegitimate marijuana and hemp growers are stealing water from irrigation canals and streams or illegally drawing water from wells to use on their crops, Friend said.

“There are legitimate farmers and there are farmers who aren’t and are trying to make money and take shortcuts,” he said.

Illegal water use should be reported to Oregon Water Resources Department Watermaster Shavon Haynes at 541-774-6880 or jacksoncountyor.org/Departments/Watermaster/Home. His field office covers Jackson County.

Haynes said it’s hard to quantify the amount of water being used for hemp and marijuana compared to other crops. The Oregon Water Resources Department hasn’t done a water use audit.

Mike Winters, president of the Talent Irrigation District board of directors and a former Jackson County sheriff, said no one knows for sure how many illegal marijuana grows are out there, but the scale of the problem is too large for TID or any single organization to handle alone.

He said a task force would have to be formed that would include the watermaster and law enforcement.

The local irrigation system has bigger problems than just illegal marijuana grows siphoning off desperately needed water.

Some users say the irrigation districts don’t systematically monitor their members’ use. That allows some people to use more water than permitted by their water rights.

Some operators who use efficient drip irrigation say flood irrigation uses too much water and shouldn’t be allowed.

Irrigation canals lose about 30% of their water through leakage and evaporation, but piping the local canals would cost $300-$400 million, according to 2015 estimates for the proposed Water for Irrigation, Streams and the Economy project. The state and federal governments would have to step in to help fund such a massive project.

The Medford Irrigation District and the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District finished piping 3 miles of irrigation canals northeast of Medford in 2020. Districts want to add more piping as money allows, said RRVID Board of Directors President Bryan Baumgartner, a rancher.

He said some agricultural operators have moved from water-intensive flood irrigation to sprinkler and drip systems. Everyone needs to take conservation measures and maintain their pipes, gaskets, sprinklers and other irrigation components in order to use water efficiently.

Baumgartner said he supports expanding reservoirs or building new ones, although he acknowledged such projects could have trouble clearing environmental regulations.

Baumgartner said he hopes people will support improvements to the domestic and agricultural water systems.

“For the general population, be aware these issues have impacts on the food supply and the social and economic well-being of our community,” he said. “It’s not just one farmer or one rancher. It’s our community.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.