A series of snowstorms over the Owyhee Basin has resulted in snowpack levels more than twice their normal amount for this time of year.
That has given farmers in Eastern Oregon who get their irrigation water from the Owyhee Reservoir a reason to be optimistic for the first time in several years.
The basin has experienced four straight years of reduced snowpack levels and the 1,800 farms that depend on the reservoir have had their annual water allotment slashed by two-thirds the past two years.
Water has stopped flowing through the Owyhee Irrigation District's 400 miles of canals, laterals and ditches in August the past two years, two months earlier than normal.
But as of Dec. 24, snowpack in the basin was at 233 percent of normal for that date.
"I'm really pleased with what I'm seeing so far," said dairyman and farmer Frank Ausman, a member of the Owyhee Irrigation District's board of directors. "We're sitting quite a bit better at this time than we were the last couple of years."
But Ausman and other farmers said the snow needs to keep falling in order for growers to have an adequate water supply next season.
"It's definitely ... a good start but it's a little early to start counting our chickens," Ausman said.
OID Manager Jay Chamberlin said the storms have laid down a lot of snow proportionally over the whole watershed, unlike last year when the sparse snow the basin received was spotty.
"Keep it coming. This feels good," he said.
The reservoir provides water for 118,000 irrigated acres in Malheur County in southeastern Oregon and around Homedale and Marsing in southwestern Idaho.
Farmers in this area have had to alter their rotations and farming practices as a result of drastically reduced water supplies the last three years. A lot of farm ground has been left idle and growers have planted a lot more crops that require less water but also bring less income.
While farmers and water supply managers expressed optimism at the current snowpack situation in the basin, they also cautioned that it's still early in the snow season and the reservoir needs a lot more water.
To guarantee a good water supply year, the reservoir needs about 450,000 acre-feet of storage water, Chamberlin said. It's holding about 50,000 acre-feet right now.
"We're going into 2016 in a lot better shape than we did the last three years," Chamberlin said. "But we have a whole lot of room in an empty bucket. We can take whatever (is sent) us."
Farmer Paul Skeen likened the current water situation to being early in a football game. While farmers are leading, there's a lot of ballgame left, he said.
"Yes, things don't look nearly as bleak as they did last year," said Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association. "But we're a long ways from the fourth quarter. We're just finishing the first quarter of the game."