Oregon governor declares drought in Klamath County

Secretary of State Kate Brown wishes Oregon a happy birthday while participating in the annual Statehood Day celebration at the Oregon Historical Society Saturday. Brown will be Oregon's 37th governor after the resignation of four term governor John Kitzhaber. Photo by Christopher Onstott

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday signed a drought declaration for Klamath County, directing the state Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Department to coordinate assistance for water users including farmers and ranchers.

“We know 2018 is shaping up to be a very difficult year for the Klamath Basin, and we’re closely monitoring drought conditions here and statewide,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “I am committed to doing everything possible to make state resources available to provide immediate relief and assistance to water users throughout Klamath County.”

Snowpack is just 45 percent of normal so far this winter in the Klamath Basin, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The U.S. Drought Monitor lists most of south-central Oregon in “moderate drought,” and conditions are likely expected to worsen heading into summer.

Klamath County commissioners previously declared a drought emergency on Feb. 20 due to low snowpack, low precipitation, low stream flows and higher-than-normal temperatures. Between threats to agriculture, livestock, natural resources and recreation, officials predict conditions could result in economic losses exceeding $557 million and impacting 4,500 jobs.

The Oregon Drought Readiness Council then met and recommended the governor sign off on a state drought declaration to assist the county.

A drought declaration gives the Water Resources Department a few additional tools at its disposal, such as issuing temporary emergency water use permits and temporary water exchanges. Alan Mikkelsen, deputy commissioner of reclamation for the Department of the Interior, also attended Gov. Brown’s meeting with Klamath officials and committed federal assistance to the basin.

“As we brace for another record-breaking drought year, collaboration with our federal partners will also be critical as we work toward locally supported, long-term solutions,” Brown said.

Scott Cheyne, assistant manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, said the declaration is a step in the right direction.

“Now it’s important for the federal government to follow along the lines and declare a drought that may open up some relief for the farmers here through federal programs,” Cheyne said.

The district received early irrigation information on March 9 from the Bureau of Reclamation, which emphasized that low snowpack and dry conditions have resulted in low water inflows to Upper Klamath Lake. The NRCS projects inflow to be about 54 percent of average between March and September.

While an irrigation schedule has not yet been set, Jeff Nettleton, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office, said they are working to provide more information in the coming weeks.

“We would like nothing more than to be able to provide our Klamath Project contractors with an allocation for the year as soon as possible, and I assure you we are all working hard to get there,” Nettleton said in a statement released by the bureau. “We have been working hard with stakeholders and partner agencies to find a path forward this year despite the dire hydrological conditions.”

The Klamath Irrigation District includes 33,000 acres, with farmers and ranchers growing a variety of crops such as alfalfa hay, potatoes, garlic, onion and mint. Irrigation season usually starts April 15, Cheyne said, but he is not certain exactly how the drought will affect this year’s timing.

“We’re hoping for a miracle March, but we’re in a pretty deep hole right now,” he said.

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