Just two months into the new water year, Oregon is already lagging behind in precipitation and snowpack across much of the state, deepening concerns about another difficult drought year in 2019.
The Oregon Water Resources Department released its latest water conditions report Dec. 3, showing average temperatures for the month of November were 2 to 5 degrees above normal in most of western and northeast Oregon. Precipitation was also well below normal statewide, as much as 1 to 3 inches in parts of northeast and northwest Oregon.
Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator for the OWRD, said it is still too early to make predictions about water conditions next year, though soil moisture, stream flows and mountain snowpack are all lower than usual out of the starting gate.
“If temperatures continue to be warmer than normal and we don’t get a good snowpack, and if precipitation is low, we could be heading into a difficult drought year for 2019,” Rancier said.
Long-term forecasts are not calling for much relief. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center calculates the odds of El Niño at more than 80 percent through February, which typically means mild winter weather in store for the Pacific Northwest.
“This is concerning, as this could result in less precipitation fall as snow,” Rancier said. “If the forecast is correct, we could see a continuation of drought conditions.”
Snowpack is critical for farmers, ranchers and fisheries in the West, because it acts as a natural reservoir for water to gradually replenish streams and reservoirs into summer. So far, water basins in southern Oregon, including the Klamath, Harney, Owyhee, Malheur and Lake County basins, are all experiencing average- to above-average snow. The situation is more dire farther north, with the Willamette Basin currently at 51 percent of normal, and the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins at 35 percent.
Average stream flows were about 50 percent of normal in November, including 30 percent of normal west of the Cascades. Rancier said many reservoirs also have little to no carryover water for next year, making precipitation all the more critical for irrigation supplies.
“This could make drought more challenging in 2019, as water in reservoirs in 2018 helped reduce drought impacts in 2018,” she said.
Oregon remains mired in a statewide drought, with the U.S. Drought Monitor reporting more than half the state in “severe drought,” and 34 percent in “extreme drought.” Last summer, OWRD interviewed 11 district watermasters, six Oregon State University extension agents, one irrigation district, four river outfitters, four municipalities and tribal staff to gain a picture of drought impacts, from wildfires to shortened growing seasons and lost economic development.
The Farmers Irrigation District in Hood River, Ore., reported rapid snowmelt in May, which led to voluntary curtailment of water for municipal use while tightly managing the lease of water from its reservoir. Less water also meant less hydroelectric production in the district, affecting how much revenue the district receives from selling hydroelectricity to PacifiCorp.
The district watermaster in Grants Pass, Ore., began curtailing water on July 12, compared to August or September during an average year. Curtailments also started a month or two early on the John Day River in Eastern Oregon.
“Regardless of the current conditions, we have experienced drought across many parts of the state in recent years, and we continue to be concerned that this is becoming the new normal,” Rancier said. “Therefore, regardless of what the conditions will be next year, it really is advisable that water users take steps to ensure that they plan for increased incidences of drought and take steps to reduce vulnerability to drought.”