Craig Reed/For the Capital Press
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — With winter storms proving elusive and the prospect of water shortages likely, Klamath County commissioners have declared a drought emergency.
The declaration was unanimously approved by commissioners at their Feb. 13 meeting. The declaration allows state and federal officials to consider a similar declaration, which would then allow water users access to drought mitigation resources. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is expected to take action later this month. The federal government will not consider declaring a drought until this summer, if and when conditions remain severe.
“It’s going to be a very challenging year,” said Commissioner Donnie Boyd, noting precipitation in December was only 27 percent of average and despite recent storms, the snowpack and water levels were at 28 percent of average in late February. “We have worked closely (with various agencies) to ensure as much water as we can for agriculture.”
Based on data collected in 2012 by the USDA that was presented at the meeting, a summer drought in the broad Klamath Basin could result in an estimated $557 million loss to agriculture countywide and the loss of almost 4,500 jobs, the Herald & News newspaper reported.
Commissioners began discussions about issuing a drought declaration in January but delayed taking action because of concerns that if they took action too early, access to resources might expire before the end of the summer. In approving the declaration, commissioners said a drought is likely because of this winter’s exceptionally dry conditions.
“We’ve passed it up to the governor,” Boyd said of awaiting word from Brown on the emergency drought declaration.”It’s in her hands now. I think we have her commitment to help us every way they can.”
Boyd said officials from the Oregon Water Resources Department and federal agencies are aware of concerns and are “very involved.” He likewise believes lessons learned from 2001, when water was withheld from irrigators for most of the summer because of concerns about endangered fish, have helped farmers and ranchers become better water managers.
“The challenges are going to be how to manage your water,” he said, noting that includes, for example, making decisions on which areas of land to irrigate or to idle. “Farmers have learned how to better use their water. There’s not near the loss there used to be. Farmers are very, very conscious on how they use their water and where the put it.”
During the meeting, Willie Riggs, director of Oregon State University Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center, said a drought could impact food supplies, according to the Herald & News. According to Riggs, an acre of wheat feeds 44 people per year while an acre of potatoes feeds 1,355 people, an acre of beef feeds about eight people, and an acre of dairy cows provides enough milk for about 40,000 half-pint servings. He estimated Klamath County has nearly 440,000 acres of agricultural land and, based on estimates, the drought could reduce production by 50 percent.
If the drought is declared at the state and federal level, water users could have access to administrative solutions normally not available. During the meeting, Klamath County Emergency Manager Morgan Lindsay said water users could split water rights between properties, substitute surface water use for ground water, issue temporary emergency permits and other measures. Preference would be given to water used by humans and livestock.
If state and federal emergencies are declared, Lindsay said the Oregon Water Resource Department will work with Klamath County Watermaster Dani Watson and that federal aid would be provided by the Farm Services Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service.