KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A mild winter and below-average snowpack is again raising the specter of drought in Southern Oregon.

Gov. Kate Brown issued a drought declaration on March 2 in Klamath County, stating that the extremely low water supply is causing natural and economic disaster conditions heading into spring and summer.

"Drought conditions arrived early and have persisted, including reduced snowpack, precipitation and minimal streamflow," Brown said. "The long-term forecast for the region continues for warmer than normal temperatures and lower than normal precipitation. These conditions have had significant economic impact on the agriculture and livestock industries in Klamath County."

Snowpack is 65% of normal in the Klamath Basin as of March 4, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Mountain snow is critical because it acts as a natural reservoir, gradually replenishing streams and lakes during the irrigation season.

The neighboring Rogue and Umpqua basins in Southern Oregon are also lagging behind normal snowpack at 71%, while the Lake County and Goose Lake areas are at 70% of normal levels.

Ken Stahr, surface water hydrology manager at the Oregon Water Resources Department, serves as co-chair of the state's Drought Readiness Council, which considers requests from counties for drought aid. He said no other counties have filed applications yet, though now is the time of year when communities may begin to sense the impacts of drought.

The Drought Readiness Council considers both climatic conditions and local impacts when passing along its recommendations to the governor's office, Stahr said.

"A lot of it is about timing," Stahr said. "This time of year, we are really still in wait-and-see mode."

An emergency drought declaration gives state agencies the ability to expedite water management tools for impacted counties, such as emergency water permits, exchanges, substitutions and in-stream leases to mitigate conditions on the ground.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly 80% of the state in abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions. Conditions are faring better along the northern coast and northeast Oregon, where the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basins still have 121% of normal snowpack.

The Klamath Water Users Association, which represents 1,200 family farms and ranches, says growers who have invested in developing supplemental groundwater supplies within the basin will be better able to access that resource with the declaration now in place.

"We are very grateful to the governor for her swift action to get in front of a very difficult situation," said KWUA President Tricia Hill, a fourth-generation farmer with Walker Farms and Gold Dust Potato Processors in Malin, Ore. "The action by the governor and her team will create important opportunities to lessen the impact of a water year that is going the wrong direction."

KWUA and Klamath Irrigation District board member Jerry Enman said the Klamath County Board of Commissioners had requested the declaration from the governor in a letter dated Feb. 25.

"The county commission, as well as the supervisors in Modoc and Siskiyou (Calif.), have been on top of this and are working hard to protect the agricultural community," Enman said.  

Oregon received a welcome reprieve from drought last year as major winter storms boosted snowpack as much as 20-30% in February 2019, following what had been a slow start to the water year.

In 2018, Brown declared drought in 11 counties statewide.

It does not appear any relief is imminently in sight for Oregon in 2020. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center is calling for an increased likelihood of higher temperatures and normal to below-normal precipitation over the next three months.

The KWUA and Klamath Project Drought Response Agency will host a public meeting at 1 p.m. March 5 at the Klamath County Fairgrounds to update farmers about water supply and resources that may be available to help get them through what is expected to be a difficult year.

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