The flooding that struck Northeast Oregon 2-1/2 weeks ago did minimal damage to structures in Union County, but the same can not be said for agricultural land.
Thousands of acres of agricultural land in Union County remain under at least a foot of water in the Imbler and Cove area. So bad are conditions that some fields could easily be mistaken for small lakes.
Among those who have been hit hard is Blue Mountain Seeds of Imbler, which grows much of its grass seed on the land of farmers it has contracts with.
“It has been a tough two weeks,’’ said Bill Merrigan, general manager of Blue Mountain Seeds, who noted this year’s flooding has been the worst the Grande Ronde Valley has seen since 2011.
Merrigan estimates approximately 5,000 acres of farmland is currently submerged in the Grande Ronde Valley.
Merrigan said 1,000 acres of land his company has contracted for seed production is under water. This is a substantial percentage of the land Blue Mountain Seeds has under production, land that will now not produce harvestable seed crops until 2021. Merrigan explained that the land now submerged is lost for this year because the grass seed crops growing on it were destroyed by the flooding. He said that even if the water were to suddenly drain off the fields, it would be too late in the year to plant new seed.
The Blue Mountain Seeds general manager added it also would not be wise to plant seed on the land because of the damage caused by the flooding, which will have to be repaired over the next year.
“Flooding tends to deposit silt and debris and brings in weeds,” Merrigan said.
The challenge the Imbler company faces is compounded by the fact that all of the grasses it grows are perennials, which produce seed after two years and then die. This means Blue Mountain Seeds will not be able to harvest a crop on the land that is now submerged until the summer of 2021 since the seed to be planted in 2020 will not produce seed until 2021.
Patty Bingaman, a farmer in the Imbler area whose family farm has been impacted by flooding, said many agricultural families are being impacted significantly by flooding.
“(The total number of acres impacted) is not a huge percentage of farmland in the Grande Ronde Valley, but for some it is the only ground they raise crops on,” Bingaman said.
Phil Hassinger reported about 750 acres of the 1,200 acres of farmland his family has on Catherine Creek is impacted by flooding. His sons, Jed and Seth, who run the family farm, are now operating four water pumps on the flooded land. Phil Hassinger said on Tuesday a pump much larger than the ones in place will be installed.
“It will pump thousands of gallons of water into the Grande Ronde River an hour,” he said.
Hassinger said there is a chance his family may be able to salvage some of their flooded land for production this year. The crops grown on it would include sunflowers and spring wheat.
Regardless of how things turn out, this is a trying time for Hassinger and his family.
“It has definitely been a bump in the road,” he said.
Merrigan said the Grande Ronde Valley is prone to flooding because there are no dams on the river or Catherine Creek, which flows into the Grande Ronde.
“We have no flood control,” he said. “We have nothing holding the water back.”
He said having dams on Catherine Creek and the Grande Ronde would not only reduce flooding, but would also allow for both to have more even flows throughout the year. The reason is that water held back in the spring would be released in the summer when flow levels are low.
Many farmers in the Grande Ronde Valley have built dirt levees to protect their fields, but unfortunately, floodwaters often jump these levees during the April flood. In some cases, this water cannot get back into the Grande Ronde River because it is blocked by the levees.
Merrigan said farmers may be tempted to cut their levees to let the water drain back into the Grande Ronde. Calling this “risky,” he explained if floodwaters return these farmers will be hit harder the second time because they will have much less protection.
The Blue Mountain Seeds manager also said taking out levees and replacing them is not a good idea because new levees are weaker. According to Merrigan, it takes several years for the soil of new levees to harden so they are strong enough to hold back water.
Merrigan said this year’s flooding has been caused in part by the late winter snowfall Northeast Oregon had. When April’s heavy spring rain and warmer temperatures hit there was higher snowmelt runoff, swelling streams.
Hassinger said sometimes many fish end up in farmers’ fields when the river floods and cannot not get out because of levees. He recalled more than a decade ago his family’s land had so many fish trapped by levees that 58 pelicans appeared and fed on the fish on his farmland for about two weeks. The fish included bass, catfish and crappie.
The flooding conditions in the Grande Ronde Valley should improve over the next five days, according to Rob Brooks, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Pendleton.
“It will be dry all week,” Brooks said.
He added temperatures will cool today and Tuesday, which will reduce snowmelt. The forecaster also noted currently no portion of the Grande Ronde River in Union and Wallowa counties is close to flood stage.