Bend Bulletin - Central Oregon gets a break from drought, but threats still loom

June 15, 2024
Bend Bulletin - Central Oregon gets a break from drought, but threats still loom

After more than four years of consistent drought, Central Oregon is finally getting a break.

June began drought-free in Central Oregon, the first time since December 2019 that a month has started without drought in the region, according to data compiled by the National Integrated Drought Information System in its U.S. Drought Monitor.

That is good news for farmers, ranchers and others who rely on water for their livelihoods, but a relatively dry spring means the situation remains tenuous and drought conditions could reappear.

Drought in Central Oregon this decade has dried up reservoirs and shuttered farms. Those farmers still in business have had to slash the number of acres on which they grow their crops. Drought has also shrunk glaciers and lowered river levels, threatening fish and wildlife. But snowpack and precipitation have been near normal in the Central Oregon Cascades over the past year and a half.

The worst of the drought occurred during a 3-year period from October 2019 to September 2022. A climax of sorts came in late 2021 when most of Central Oregon was blanketed by exceptional drought, the highest of four drought categories.

Central Oregon was the last region of the Beaver State in drought. Other Western states have escaped drought, thanks to large winter storms that battered the region over the past two winters. California and Nevada are also completely free of drought and just scattered pockets of drought remain in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Arizona.

More water for farmers

The improved conditions in Central Oregon allowed the North Unit Irrigation District to bump up water allocations to farmers it serves in Jefferson County. Patrons will now receive 1.15 acre-feet of water per acre compared to just 1 acre foot allotted in late March.

“The subtle increase in the Deschutes River natural flows will help the junior user North Unit irrigation District get a little more natural flow and have a little less reliance on Wickiup Reservoir, which allowed the district to increase the yearly allotment this year,” said Jeremy Giffin, the Deschutes Basin watermaster.

The additional water for farmers comes from a bump in Central Oregon’s reservoirs. As of Friday, Wickiup Reservoir was 61% full with 122,755 acre-feet of water, around 20,000 acre-feet more than a year ago on the same date. Prineville Reservoir has also improved over the past two winters and is currently 96% full.

But Josh Bailey, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District, said farmers are still suffering from allotments that are roughly half of what is received in a normal year.

“We are better off than last year, but far from out of the woods. 2024 is the sixth year of reduced allotments for (North Unit) patrons. And local businesses and ranchers are straining under the continued reduced allotments,” said Bailey.

Troubled waters ahead

Others will point out that while the current Drought Monitor map may be a sign of relief, some troubling signals portend a return to drier conditions. One is a lack of rainfall this spring. Bend and Redmond have received less than 40% of normal precipitation in the past two months.

Larry O’Neil, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, warns that barring an unexpected wet period, drought is likely to return.

“While the Drought Monitor indeed shows the last month without any drought in Central Oregon, I do not yet consider the drought completely over,” he said.

O’Neil points out that groundwater levels remain low in Central Oregon, impacting well-water patrons, farmers and ranchers.

The drought monitor uses various data to produce results, including weather, snowpack, streamflows, evaporation and soil conditions. Soil moisture within 3 feet of the surface remains low in most of the Deschutes Basin, said O’Neil.

“In practical terms, that means less runoff into streams and rivers and also a need for abnormally high irrigation water use,” said O’Neil. “Since Wickiup Reservoir and Crescent Lake are still having difficulty filling, it means curtailments and higher levels of groundwater extraction are still occurring.”

The lingering dry conditions are partially due to Central Oregon’s geology, which is dominated by porous rock and soil that absorb water instead of allowing runoff into streams and lakes. The underground rock must be saturated before it can allow runoff to recharge lakes.

“Being in a semi-arid climate, it will take several years of normal or above normal precipitation to recharge those systems,” said O’Neil.

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