Low water

A wheel line irrigation system waters a field in Culver, Ore., on June 11. A regional collaborative hopes to provide timely information to communities so they can better anticipate and manage drought-related impacts.

PORTLAND — A regional collaborative group wants to hear from Northwest farmers and ranchers about how drought is affecting crops and livestock.

The Pacific Northwest Drought Early Warning System includes state climatologists and USDA representatives from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and western Montana. Its mission is to provide timely information for communities to better anticipate and manage drought-related impacts, such as water shortages and wildfires.

Part of that effort is gathering on-the-ground reports of drought conditions from local agricultural producers.

Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland, said feedback is crucial to updating the U.S. Drought Monitor, which in turn is used by the federal agencies to trigger a number of emergency programs — such as crop insurance, loans and support for specific commodities.

“We’re just trying to get information out there, number one,” Oviatt said. “That will help represent those on-the-ground, real-time conditions on the Drought Monitor itself.”

While areas of Washington and northern Idaho have received near-average precipitation for the water year dating back to October, parts of Oregon are in much rougher shape, Oviatt said. The Drought Monitor shows a little more than 90% of Oregon is in some stage of drought, and a little more than 6% is in “extreme drought.”

Gov. Kate Brown has declared drought in 11 counties, mostly in central and southern Oregon. They include Coos, Curry, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Douglas, Deschutes, Crook, Jefferson, Wasco and Gilliam counties. Another two, Morrow and Wheeler counties, have applied for a drought declaration.

Statewide, Oregon has received 83% of average precipitation for the water year, Oviatt said. That ranges just slightly above average in northeast Oregon river basins to 69% of normal in the Klamath Basin, and 72% of normal in the Rogue and Umpqua basins.

Oviatt said the DEWS is already hearing verbal reports of wheat fields stunted due to drought in some locations, and ranchers who may have to change their normal grazing rotations. Mountain snow melted rapidly beginning in mid-April, in some cases one to three weeks ahead of schedule, which likely will mean lower streamflows later this season.

“We’re already seeing those impacts,” Oviatt said. “Some streams are very well below normal. We expect that to continue.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor has been around since 2000, but its authors are in North Carolina or Lincoln, Neb., which Oviatt said makes it difficult to accurately reflect conditions across the country.

In 2006, Congress authorized the National Integrated Drought Information System, or NIDIS, combining multiple federal agencies and the National Drought Mitigation Center, which operates the Drought Monitor. Under NIDIS, there are nine regional Drought Early Warning System groups, including one for the Pacific Northwest that formed in 2015.

An effective Early Warning System can make drought mitigation all the more responsive, Oviatt said. He pointed to the severe drought year of 2015 in Oregon, when conditions were not accurately reflected on the Drought Monitor until it was too late for growers to get much assistance.

By reporting their observations to the Drought Early Warning System, Oviatt said growers can set themselves up for greater resilience.

“We’re trying to encourage folks in future years to watch their conditions, and be prepared during the winter and spring months,” Oviatt said. “You don’t want to be behind in the fall. That’s too late to get you any kind of reprieve.”

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