ST. PAUL, Ore. — A record dry April is accelerating drought conditions and hampering water storage throughout much of the typically rain soaked Willamette Valley.
Nearly all of Western Oregon received just 25% or less of normal precipitation last month, according to the West Wide Drought Tracker, making it the driest April on record in large portions of the region stretching from Portland to Eugene.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, is struggling to refill 13 Willamette Basin reservoirs in time for peak summer demand. As of May 4, the combined system was 64% full, setting the stage for a difficult water year.
“We collaborate with a lot of agencies, partners and stakeholders to try and balance all of the competing demands and comply with the law,” said Erik Petersen, project operations manager. “As we head into more marginal water years, it becomes increasingly difficult to satisfy everyone’s interests.”
The Willamette Valley Project, in particular, is designed to hold back water for flood control during the rainy spring and winter months. The water is then released downstream to augment flows for fish, wildlife and agriculture in the summer.
“If we don’t get precipitation that comes in the form of rain in February, March and April, we’re going to have a tough conservation season,” Petersen said.
Petersen said the Corps struck a deal with the National Marine Fisheries Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to hold back more water this spring, dropping below minimum required streamflows in the Willamette River near Albany and Salem to provide more water later in the summer when it’s needed.
Despite the looming deficits, irrigators anticipate they will still receive their full water allotments for the year.
Brent Stevenson, general manager of the Santiam Water Control District in Stayton, Ore., said that while officials are watching water levels in Detroit Lake, he does not expect much of an impact.
“The drought will change flows into Detroit, but typically unless it’s really severe, it doesn’t affect discharges,” Stevenson said. “We are at this point expecting normal deliveries.”
In addition to providing water for the city of Stayton, the district delivers irrigation water from the North Santiam River for about 17,000 acres of farmland.
The U.S. Drought Monitor now shows most of the Willamette Valley in moderate to severe drought, which is affecting agriculture in other ways.
Tim Winn, who grows about 1,000 acres of grass seed and vegetable seed crops in rural Benton County, said that without rainfall to build up soil moisture he was forced to begin irrigating weeks ahead of schedule.
“We got started just in the nick of time before conditions became too stressful on the crop,” said Winn, who is water committee chairman for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Last month, Winn said, he planted about 150 acres of vegetable seed crops in areas where he does not have access to irrigation. For those dryland fields, he said the plants barely have enough water to emerge from the ground.
“Wherever dryland farming takes place, it’s all a matter of timing and luck when it comes to how each year pans out with regards to enough soil moisture,” Winn said.
Brenda Frketich, who grows grass seed, vegetable seed and hazelnuts on her family’s farm near St. Paul, Ore., said she also relies on April showers that typically provide a much-needed shot of ground moisture.
“For us this year, everything we can irrigate, we are irrigating,” she said. “It’s definitely on the earlier side, compared to years past.”
It is still too early to say if grass seed yields or quality will be reduced, Frketich said. But she would certainly welcome any rain to help the grass seed crop.
“We’re definitely behind compared to a normal year,” Frketich said.