SALEM — Recent autumn rains are helping Oregon’s water situation but the state is still experiencing a drought that may persist into next year, according to experts.
The drought that plagued the 2021 water year — which began last fall and ended with summer — was the state’s fourth most severe on record and is continuing despite the rain, said Larry O’Neill, the state climatologist.
While the drought has been intense, the state has experienced below-average precipitation for 16 years in the past two decades, O’Neill told the House Water Committee at a Nov. 17 hearing.
“If it seems like Oregon has been drier than normal, it certainly has been,” he said.
Aside from less rain in spring and summer, the drought was aggravated by high temperatures that caused evaporation, O’Neill said.
Evaporation further limited water supplies, which were already strained by an early melt-out of snowpacks across the state, he said.
“Our snowpack melted between one and three weeks early,” O’Neill said.
The high temperatures were “more than just the heat wave” in June that made national news, as areas throughout Oregon suffered extended periods of hot weather, he said.
Before the rains returned in mid-September, about 25% of stream flows were gauged at record-low levels and 70% were gauged at below-average levels, he said.
As a result of the drought, major reservoirs are storing below-average water levels, ranging from 0% to 78% of average, said Ryan Andrews, a hydrologist with the state Water Resources Department.
“We’re starting at a serious deficit at the beginning of water year 2022,” he said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that precipitation is likely to be above-average in the Northwest in coming months, Andrews said. Meanwhile, temperatures are equally likely to be below or above average.
While the seasonal outlook could be worse, the weather isn’t likely to reverse the drought conditions, he said.
Likewise, the drought’s economic effects will be felt for years to come, since the damage to crops such as Christmas trees and nursery stock is long-lasting, said Jonathan Sandau, special assistant to the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s director.
Financial difficulties from lower crop yields and insufficient livestock feed have created stress for the entire farm system, which in some cases is difficult to quantify, Sandau said.
Recent downpours have brought relief but won’t undo these problems, he said. “That does not reset the damages that have been sustained.”