Bend Bulletin – Drought severity across Oregon subsides modestly, compared to year ago

This article was published on: 11/10/22 12:16 PM

Much of Oregon is still in drought, but the extent and the severity of the problem have lessened significantly, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The drought monitor map published Thursday shows most of Western Oregon still in “abnormally dry” conditions and parts of Central Oregon in moderate or exceptional drought. While high levels of drought persist, they are less severe compared to a year ago when half the state was in the highest category of drought.

Drought in Central Oregon over the past three years has devastated the region’s agricultural community, forcing farmers in some irrigation districts to leave half their acres barren for the entire growing season. The drought has also decimated critical snowpack in the Cascades, a phenomenon that has caused a thinning of glaciers.

The dry conditions forced all three counties in Central Oregon to declare droughts last year, opening the door to state assistance programs.

The drought declaration helped Jefferson County’s North Unit Irrigation District pay the water bill for all its patrons this year, utilizing Emergency Drought Relief funds administered through the Oregon Department of Administrative Services.

“Those funds were fully allocated to NUID patron’s accounts before the water season began,” said Josh Bailey, the North Unit’s general manager. “There are leftover funds that will be rolled over to offset the 2023 assessment.”

The $5.5 million that the district received will be completely expended before July 1, 2023, per Oregon legislative directives. The district is currently seeking additional drought relief funding of $4.5 million.

The most noticeable drought casualty in Central Oregon has been Wickiup Reservoir, which has gone dry three years in a row. People living in rural areas of Deschutes County are also increasingly complaining about their wells going dry, as the drought lowers the water table.

“We had about 20 complaints in 2021, and we have had 70 complaints in 2022 through September,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Drought has impacted fish and wildlife, too. In September, a lack of water in Prineville Reservoir forced dam operators to cut the amount of water released into the Crooked River, imperiling fish and aquatic wildlife downstream.

But a wet start to the winter season is offering some hope that this winter will provide enough snowpack and rainfall to put a dent in Central Oregon’s drought. On the drought monitor map, just half of Crook County remains in the worst level of drought. Last year that area covered a swath of the state that stretched from California to Washington and included parts of 11 counties.

Larry O’Neill, an associate professor at the Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, said Oregon is in for above-average precipitation from December to February and normal temperatures for most of the state.

“The projection for the Cascades is consistent with the historical tendencies for La Niña,” O’Neill said.

So far this water year, which began Oct. 1, the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River area has received precipitation that is 125% of normal while the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes region is 140% of normal. The next chance of precipitation may come Friday night.

-Michael Kohn