Bend Bulletin - Jefferson County declares drought for record fifth straight year

June 27, 2024
Bend Bulletin - Jefferson County declares drought for record fifth straight year

Bend Bulletin

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek has declared drought in Jefferson County, a designation that could help area farmers access financial assistance as the county endures another year of lower water allotments.

Kotek made the designation official on Thursday and directed state agencies to coordinate and prioritize assistance to the region, according to a statement from her office. The county made its request for drought assistance in April.

This year marks the fifth consecutive year that the county declared drought.

The county has been drought-free since March 19, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, but a statement from Kotek’s office said the impact of multiple years of drought is still being felt across the area.

Help for farmers

The declaration will have its greatest impact on patrons of North Unit Irrigation District, which delivers water to farmers in Jefferson County. District patrons have endured six straight years of reduced water allotments due to prolonged drought.

This year’s allotment stands at 1.15 acre-feet of water compared to a normal allotment of around 2 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot.

Josh Bailey, general manager for North Unit Irrigation District in Jefferson County, said it’s not just multiple years of drought that are hurting farmers. The agricultural sector is also suffering from low commodity prices and increased costs for fertilizer, fuel and labor.

“Everything compounds on these farmers. We have generational farmers that have sold and are moving out of the district. We have tractor dealerships that are closing up shop. We have seed manufacturers that are closing down portions of their operations.

“We see the effects all over the place,” said Bailey.

Jefferson County is the only county in Oregon this year to request drought relief. A year ago, 13 Oregon counties declared drought.

Deschutes County declared drought four years in a row, from 2020 to 2023, but has not issued a drought declaration this year.

Most of the Deschutes Basin suffers from low streamflow and the depletion of aquifers, and precipitation has measured below average in Jefferson County since 2018, Kotek’s office said in its drought declaration.

Economic impact

The declaration says the drought conditions have an economic impact on Jefferson County and reduce water access for both people and wildlife.

“Extreme conditions are expected to affect local growers and livestock, increase the potential for wildfire, shorten the growing season, and decrease water supplies,” according to the statement.

The drought declaration opens up several drought-related emergency tools, including assistance to local water users. Drought declarations also allow the Oregon Water Resources Department to expedite review processes and reduce fee schedules.

North Unit farmer Evan Thomas said he is hopeful that federal funds will be available this year to help farmers in counties that have declared drought, and he’s grateful that Kotek approved the declaration.

“If there is some assistance available, we can receive the benefit of that. It’s appreciated that she understands the predicament we’re in and could make a decision that will benefit us in the future,” Thomas said.

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