Water creeps over OR farmers' land

BY GEORGE PIPER | HARNEY COUNTY, OR | April 5, 1999


HARNEY COUNTY, OR (April 5, 1999) -- Few people can say they lived through

two '100-year' disasters and it's a distinction Buck Taylor would rather

leave to someone else.

Taylor, a rancher in southeast Oregon's Harney County, is one of some 30

farmers threatened by flooding in the Malheur Valley, a table-flat desert

range. Fast-melting snowpacks, which are higher than usual, are turning

three lakes here into one large, deep body of water.

The same area flooded in the mid-1980s, with the water levels in the Malheur

Valley topping out at 4,102 feet sea level -- the highest recorded mark. At

that time, disaster officials deemed it a 100-year event, and ranchers lost

100,000 acres of winter hay-growing capacity.

"We can see that the lake level will not go down this year or next year at

all," says Taylor, who operates V.E. Ranch in rural Harney County and has

already lost 1,400 acres to rising water. Before the 1986 flood, Taylor

could sustain 500 of his Beef Master herd -- a crossbreed of Shorthorn,

Brahman and Hereford -- for three months on 1,400 tons of meadow-raised hay.

Flooding reduced Taylor's operation down to around 100 head before he slowly

rebuilt back to 500 cows. Fellow Malheur Valley ranchers who raise Angus and

Hereford brands face similar losses.

Cattle are the only marketable commodity in this terrain, and ranchers use

the meadows for growing winter feed for their animals. The land likely will

remain under water through the summer or longer and prevent grazing and

planting winter hay, notes David Chamberlain, Harney County agricultural

extension agent. But flooding causes repercussions far beyond one season.

"Not only can you not grow your winter feed but it kills all of your

perennial grasses," says Chamberlain, adding that grasslands were just

beginning to recover from 1986.

With long range forecasts predicting wet years ahead, water levels could set

new record highs early in the next century.

Malheur, Harney and Mud lakes cover about 60,000 acres, but melting snow and

no drainage has doubled that area. Normally, the meadows lie five to eight

feet above the typical high mark of 4,093 feet. The current level is 4,098

feet, and that extra five feet has flooded more than 50,000 acres of private

farmland. In 1986, 100,000 acres of meadowland became submerged and ranchers

lost homes, fences and other property.

"We kind of know what is going to go on," said Taylor, who estimated his

1986 flood losses at $1 million, including three houses and 40 miles of

fences. "We were smart enough not to rebuild in the flood plain."

A few farmers lost their operations after the 1986 flood, when hard times

forced them to sell cows, says Chamberlain. Most still haven't regained

their financial footings in that 13-year interval.

"It's really, really financially difficult for the folks who are impacted,"

he said. "You start over from scratch, and it takes a lot of cash to put it

back together."

In a profession where self-sufficiency is a hallmark, these farmers truly

are on their own. No United States Department of Agriculture policy applies

to this situation, says Taylor, and the best they can hope for is a disaster

declaration that applies some tax relief.

Some emergency feed and infrastructure programs exist, says Chamberlain, but

these are cost-share situations where the ranchers already have little or no

ready cash.

Because only 30 people are affected, Taylor believes it's tough to get state

or federal officials to pay attention to their plight. "We feel that no one

hears us, and that's kind of depressing," he adds.

The simplest solution -- a canal to drain the water from the closed basin

into the Snake River -- died about 10 years ago when the U.S. Army Corps of

Engineers determined the project's benefit-to-cost ratio was too low, Taylor

said. Officials and ranchers discussed similar tactics again, and Taylor

hopes that something can be done to alleviate water levels.

"We hope that there is going to be a declaration of disaster so we can sell

cattle without an income tax penalty," added Taylor, who is part of the

Malheur Basin Working Group, a coalition of local ranchers and state

officials looking into the problem.

In the short-term, the group is seeking a lease arrangement with the U.S.

government, which owns thousands of acres used for wildlife refuge. When the

lake waters cover private meadows, ranchers would receive payments from

Uncle Sam that would offset costs to buy feed or subsidize the sale of cows.

As Taylor thinks about his cow herd dwindling and the likelihood of laying

off two employees, the possibility that he could lose the whole operation

has crossed his mind. But he remains optimistic that things will work out.

"We are going to do something to hold this together," he says. "I think most

people feel this way."

Posted April 5, 1999


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