Oregon, Already Struggling With Drought, May Have Still More to Come

Record heat and low rainfall have prompted drought emergency declarations in nearly a third of Oregon’s counties. Predicted El Niño conditions may mean there’s no relief in store this winter.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A photographer walks across bone-dry hills blackened by the Substation Fire, which burned 76,000 acres south of The Dalles, Ore., in July. Oregon broke a record this year for firefighting expenditure, partly due to severe drought conditions and record heat.Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center

Oregon is known by many as a wet place, with persistent rain and forests enveloped in fog. This year is different. In a matter of just six weeks over the summer, one-third of Oregon was instead enveloped by extreme drought.

That figure comes from the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), a branch of NOAA. The results also rank 86 percent of Oregon in severe drought territory, a slightly less severe category.

The Oregon drought this year is most striking because it covers many coastal areas known historically as some of the wettest in the country.

The town of Florence, nearly smack in the middle of the state’s Pacific coast, has received only 33in of rain so far this year. That would rank as a wet year for many areas of the West. But normal precipitation in Florence is 69in annually.

NIDIS estimates 3.8 million people in Oregon are experiencing drought conditions, which is 99 percent of the state’s population.

“We have a pretty severe drought here in Oregon right now, partially due to the low snowpack last year, which really set the ball into motion,” said Kathie Dello, associate director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University. “Now we’re into the rainy season, and it’s not raining.”

That low snowpack was due, in part, to higher temperatures. Portland, for instance, saw its hottest year in recorded history, with more days above 90 degrees than ever before.

Racquel Rancier, a senior policy coordinator at the Oregon Water Resources Department, said the dry conditions also occurred because storms coming off the Pacific Ocean swerved north into Washington state and bypassed Oregon.

“Only the northeast corner of Oregon experienced somewhat normal amounts of precipitation and snowpack,” Rancier said. “The rest of the state was drier and warmer than normal.”

Gov. Kate Brown has declared a drought emergency in 11 of Oregon’s 36 counties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, using a different process, has declared drought in all but five counties, a status that makes those counties eligible for various kinds of federal assistance.

Without a deep snowpack contributing to streamflow, Dello said, the state dried out very quickly after last winter. The Willamette Valley experienced its driest ever May through September period. In September, statewide streamflows averaged just 55 percent of normal, and many reservoirs across the state were at less than 25 percent of capacity at the end of the month.

The dry conditions and heat have also led to a busy wildfire season, with firefighting costs in the state setting a new record of $514 million for the year.

Soil moisture is one important way the experts measure drought severity, as well as effects on rangelands used for grazing livestock, which are typically not irrigated. Dello said only 4 percent of Oregon rangelands are considered to be in good condition, while the rest are not good.

“We’re seeing big agricultural impacts,” she said. “We’re hearing lots of reports from ranchers about having to provide supplemental feed, not having the pastures they normally would, selling off animals early.”

The impacts are most severe on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, a relatively arid region even when precipitation is normal. This year, conditions are very dry east of the Cascades in places like the Deschutes River basin.

Mike Britton, general manager of the North Unit Irrigation District in the Deschutes Basin, said the winter of 2016–17 was relatively wet. But it was the only wet winter in the past five years.

“On the heels of that year we ran into this year, which I think caught a lot of people by surprise,” Britton said.

The district relies on Wickiup Reservoir, with a 200,000 acre-foot capacity, to serve its irrigation customers. The reservoir started the year full, but then ran dry this fall.

About 86 percent of Oregon is considered to be in severe drought as of Oct. 22, as indicated by the orange color. About 33 percent is experiencing severe drought, shown in red. Drought in some form affects 99 percent of the state’s population. (Image courtesy National Integrated Drought Information System)

“So much of our water is groundwater- and spring-fed,” Britton said. “Part of the reason Wickiup was run down was we just weren’t seeing the spring inflows we had seen in the past. It all added up to a bad season and an empty reservoir, unfortunately.”

Farmers who rely on the reservoir were able to finish out the season without too much pain, Britton said. He worries more about next year, because he doubts the reservoir will fill even if a wet winter should materialize. That’s because the runoff will have to recharge the springs and groundwater first.

Already, Britton has noticed a lot of farmers in the 60,000-acre district have not started preparing fields for winter as they normally would. He estimates 25 percent of farmland in the district won’t be planted next spring because farmers anticipate water shortages.

“I’m almost certain there will be a lower allotment to our water users next year. There will be a fair amount of fallowed ground in our district next year, I’m sure,” he said.

Rancier said the state has approved about 60 emergency drought permits or transfers in two counties. These allow water rights holders to access other water supplies if their original water right dries up.

John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, said the state could stretch available water much further if it did more to enforce water waste rules. The state’s water rights law requires beneficial use of water and forbids waste. Unfortunately, he said, lots of waste occurs when water is distributed in unlined ditches: In many cases, less than one-third of the diverted water actually reaches the crop.

The state also could impose irrigation efficiency standards on farmers to boost water conservation. This could limit practices such as flood irrigation, which is wasteful compared to methods such as sprinklers or drip irrigation.

Both of these measures, however, are unpopular with farmers. WaterWatch recommended these and other steps to the governor’s drought task force in 2016 and got no traction.

“In a drought situation, that kind of hamstrings what can be done to stretch what we have,” DeVoe said. “A lot of people are hostile to government. So for the government to come in and say ‘we would like you to do something different’ is very difficult.”

The state has imposed regulation on some streams due to low flows. In such cases, those with junior water rights are ordered to stop diverting to ensure adequate water for those with senior rights.

“For many streams in Oregon, regulation occurred around four to six weeks earlier than normal in 2018,” Rancier said. “In addition, some streams that are rarely regulated required water distribution this year, due to significantly lower-than-normal streamflows.”

One area affected by stream regulation includes Colton, a town of 2,400 people about 20 miles south of Portland. As a result of stream regulation by the state, outdoor watering was banned, starting in August – even for crops.

“It’s very, very upsetting,” Kathy Carroll of K’s Nursery, a landscaping and garden retailer she has owned for 24 years, told KPTV television news. “They just kind of hit it with us – boom. I can’t say that I’m going to abide by it.”

Tension over the drought has eased somewhat with the arrival of cooler fall temperatures, and a couple of early rainstorms that have reached the coast. But the winter ahead is uncertain due to the forecast of weak El Niño conditions.

El Niño, a periodic warming of equatorial Pacific Ocean waters, often means relatively dry winter conditions in the Northwest – including Oregon. In a report issued Oct. 18, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center said there is a 70–75 percent chance of El Niño forming by late fall. Warmer-than-normal conditions are expected throughout the West as a result, making it likely drought will persist in interior regions of the Northwest.

“I would say, yeah, people are worried,” said Dello. “El Niño tends to mean warmer and drier, although that’s not always the case. But it does make people nervous – rightfully so, after this bad water year.”

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