Farmers in dire need of a wet winter
Monday, August 19, 2013 5:00 PM
WINNEMUCCA - Farmers who rely exclusively on surface water sources to irrigate are really up against it this year.
The reservoirs are drained. Rye Patch is all but empy at about 6,500 acre-feet, with just enough of a pool left to keep the fish alive. Lahontan Reservoir is way down, so is South Fork Reservoir in Elko County
Without a huge snowpack in the Ruby Mountains this winter and a big runoff on the Humboldt River, there won't be much of a growing season next year in Pershing County for farmers irrigating out of Rye Patch.
Even an old rancher from Paradise Valley said the Humboldt River flowing past Winnemucca usually has at least a trickle in it in July. Not this year. It dried up early.
No doubt that Pershing County irrigators at the lower end of the Humboldt River have it tough. They only received about 10 percent of their allotments this year and there's no carryover in Rye Patch for next year.
Lovelock Review-Miner reporter Debra Reid wrote a recent story, which also ran in the Sun, on what University of Nevada Cooperative Extension educator Steve Foster, Pershing County Water Conservation District Manager Bennie Hodges and others are doing to find backup water for Lovelock-area farmers.
They are exploring the possibility of pumping groundwater, an idea dismissed in the past over issues with water quality. But with the ongoing drought draining reservoirs and no certainty that this winter will bring above average precipitation, where else is there to turn?
In Humboldt County, most of the green hay fields are irrigated by pumping groundwater. Local farmers didn't have to quit growing alfalfa when the Humboldt River dried up.
That rubs some Pershing County hay growers the wrong way, as Reid pointed out in her story. Owners of groundwater rights can pump all summer long. Owners of surface water rights were out of luck in July, when the Pershing County Water Conservation District closed the gate at Rye Patch and said that's it for the season.
Fallon-area farmers also have surface water rights and flood irrigate alfalfa fields in the Lahontan Valley. Lahontan Reservoir is way down as well and farmers there are looking at a shortened season, but they fared better than Pershing County irrigators.
When the Carson River doesn't provide enough inflow to fill Lahontan Reservoir and satisfy water rights decrees, Fallon farmers can divert water from the Truckee River at Derby Dam. They've got a backup water supply that Pershing irrigators do not.
Here's another twist in the surface water rights versus groundwater rights of farmers upstream and downstream on the Humboldt River.
Aquifers are recharged by the Humboldt River, so a percentage of water that flows in the river in the spring never makes it downstream to Rye Patch. It seeps out upstream into aquifers.
With the prolonged drought and pumping, aquifers are tapped, meaning even more water from the river will go into recharging them before flowing downstream. That's great for groundwater irrigators, but not so much for those relying on Rye Patch inflows.
In Reid's story, a USGS hydrologist said a study confirms that groundwater pumping has reduced the amount of Humboldt River water reaching Pershing County over the years.
More users are pumping more groundwater upstream - mining, farmers, residential users, and the demand is growing.
If you're on the lower end of the Humboldt River, you're hoping for 15 feet of snow this year.
Steve Lyon is editor of the Humboldt Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.