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WaterExtended Oregon drought raises concern over state’s water security

Published 2 April 2015

Facing the fourth straight year of drought, Oregon officials are worried that the state’s water security may be in jeopardy, as is already the case in California, which has just announced its first-ever mandatory water restrictions. a historically warm winter this season has continued to shrink snowpack throughout the Oregon Cascades, including the usual five-foot levels which accumulate on Mt. Hood, leading experts to suggest that even bigger problems lie ahead. Without the usual snowfall, Oregonians can expect fewer healthy fish in the rivers, fewer seed sprouts, and more wild fires. Moreover, the need for more irrigation could hamper the state’s already hobbled farming economy.

Facing the fourth straight year of drought, Oregon officials are worried that the state’s water security may be in jeopardy, as is already the case in California, which has just announced its first-ever mandatory water restrictions.

As The Oregonian reports, a historically warm winter this season has continued to shrink snowpack throughout the Oregon Cascades, including the usual five-foot levels which accumulate on Mt. Hood, leading experts to suggest that even bigger problems may arise due to continued high temperature predictions by the National Weather Service.

I think because you couldn’t see the snow on the hills, and it’s so warm flowers started blooming in February, everybody knew something was up,” said Kathie Dello, the associate director at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

Without the usual snowfall, which is instead accumulating aswarm rains and runoff, Oregonians can expect fewer healthy fish in the rivers, fewer seed sprouts, and more wild fires. Moreover, the need for more irrigation could hamper the state’s already hobbled farming economy.

Governor Kate Brown has already declared a drought emergency in Malheur and Lake counties, with more expected to follow. Currently, the federal government is offering emergency aid to business owners and farmers affected in thirteen Oregon counties.

Malheur County in particular is experiencing problems. The Owyhee Reservoir, which supplies water to roughly 125,000 acres of farmland, is projected to dry up by August. Owhyhee Irrigation District Manager Jay Chamberlin told farmers that they can only expect 1.3 acre-feet per acre to grow their crops, down from 4 acre-feet per acre last year.

They’re trying to figure out what they can even grow on that small amount of water,” he said. “This is just like a cancer. It eats away year by year until all the sudden, you realize you’re about to lose your life. That’s what this drought is doing.”

Many are switching to grain and seed crops which require less water than the usual onions and sugar beets grown in the area. Those crops, however, also bring in less money.

Oregon Department of Forestry officials are also on stand-by after the previous two seasons of forest fires which lasted longer and burned more acreage. The agency has budgeted $45.7 million for operations within the state for 2015.

Experts say that the current drought may just be the “new normal” on the West Coast moving forward. A recent NASA report has predicted that “megadroughts” will become common across the region by the end of the century, prompting some to ask whether the hectic pace of development in the area would now slow down.

“A lot of skeptics have just sort of been drowned out by the boosterism for more rural economic development,” said Steve Pedery, the executive director at Oregon Wild. “With climate change, does it really make sense to be encouraging more of this development in the desert?”

Agricultural economists are expecting that 20 percent of land will lie fallow in Owyhee basin this year, with that statistic to become more common for other regions as well.