Southeastern Oregon is preparing for the fourth straight year of drought. The region has received record-low or near-record-low snowfall this winter.
On Friday, the first day of spring, the federal government announced it was making emergency aid available to 13 Oregon counties because of drought. Gov. Kate Brown has declared a drought emergency for Lake and Malheur counties. Similar declarations are expected soon for Harney, Crook and Klamath counties.
Here are answers to some of the questions raised for the Klamath Basin on the Oregon-California border, a region already scarred for decades by intense water wars.
Q: How is this year different from previous years in Southeastern Oregon?
A: If you looked at a graph charting precipitation in the Klamath Basin, things would look pretty normal. The difference and the problem is most of that precipitation has come down in the form of rain, not snow. It’s been really warm this winter. The snowpack in Klamath County is only 6 percent of normal. Even considering all the rain, streams are flowing below 50 percent of normal. Last year the drought was listed as “severe.” This year, they’re predicting an “extreme” drought.
Q: What does this tell us about what’s going to happen this summer?
A: This is a region that depends almost entirely on snowpack to provide water for ranching, agriculture and wildlife like salmon. Scott White, the watermaster for Klamath County, says because of the drought, he expects he will have to start regulating sooner this year. That could mean cutting water off early in the season for people with junior water rights.
Q: Why is the emergency declaration important?
A: It should help, because it makes the counties eligible for federal funds. Some of that could eventually go to reimbursing farmers directly who take losses because of the drought.
The other thing the emergency declaration does is it allows irrigators to apply for something called a “drought permit” that lets them supplement surface water they get from streams and canals by tapping into sources like groundwater.
Q: Is there enough groundwater to go around?
A: It’s difficult to say exactly. The groundwater supplies in the basin have been over-pumped during the recent drought years. Two of the last three years, irrigators have pumped more than what scientists say the aquifer can support long term. People are getting more and more worried the aquifer is not being allowed to replenish itself. And the watermaster may ultimately have to start shutting off wells.
Q: People in Southeast Oregon have been dealing with drought conditions for decades. Why does there seem to be a panic every time this happens?
A: It seems like this slowly started to change after the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement in 2010 and the adjudication of 2013 that gave Native American tribes senior water rights in the region. There’s no question now about who gets first dibs at the water. And the more time that goes by, the more all water users come to understand about how the new hierarchy will play out.
Q: Isn’t there always going to be uncertainty with the weather?
A: Sure. But not seeing white on the hills gives everyone a pretty good certainty that there’s not going to be much water this summer.
Q: Is anything being done to solve the longer term problem of there not being enough water?
A: Snow has been really light, but there’s been plenty of rain this winter in the region. And this has prompted a lot of talk about developing more water storage. One proponent of this idea is Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams. Here’s what he had to say in an interview:
“Even here in the Klamath Basin we’ve had some really heavy, what I call gully-washer rainstorms come through. I mean we had a lot of water going down the river, and it ended up just going into the Pacific because there was no place to hold it. And I think that’s really counter-productive for citizens, for the population and for Mother Nature. There is no benefit I can ever see to just let flood waters go when you have the opportunity to capture it and hold it for a drier day.”
Mallams has been pushing this idea, and there seems to be some momentum building. He’s pulling together a committee to look specifically at water storage possibilities.
Q: What kind of options are on the table?
A: Some of the possibilities floating around are small-scale reservoirs, storage canals, and reverting old lake-beds back to their original use.