Recent rains help, but Central Oregon drought still far from over

November 24, 2021
Recent rains help, but Central Oregon drought still far from over

Several years of above average precipitation needed to fully recover from record drought, climatologist says

The series of rainstorms that blew through Central Oregon over the past month helped moisten the ground after a very dry summer, but climate experts say areas east of the Cascades are still a long way from escaping drought conditions.

“The recent rains, while a great start to the water year, has done little to quench the drought,” said Larry O’Neill, an associate professor in the Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

Central Oregon’s persistent drought has exacerbated glacier melt in the Cascades, caused hardship for cattle ranchers in Jefferson County, and dried out reservoirs across the region. The drought is a microcosm of what is happening as climate impacts communities across the Western United States.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Crook County is in exceptional drought, the highest category in the monitor. Parts of Deschutes and Jefferson counties are also in the exceptional drought category, with some western portions of these counties in extreme and severe categories.

Bend has received 5.16 inches of precipitation this year, according to data compiled by the National Weather Service, well short of the 7.18 inches of average precipitation that is normal by this time of year.

Overcoming the drought in Central Oregon is no quick fix because the land has been baked to a crisp, not just during last summer’s record-breaking heat wave but because the region has suffered multiple years of below-average precipitation.

“Precipitation in Deschutes County has been below normal in 16 out of the last 22 years, and well below normal in three out of the last four water years,” said O’Neill, who also serves as Oregon’s state climatologist.

Last year was the eighth-lowest water year on record, he added.

For many residents of Bend, an end to the drought would mean more powder days at Mt. Bachelor ski area. But north of Bend, in Jefferson County, ending the drought results in farmland that is fully planted, not empty acres waiting for water. Driving through the area this past summer revealed acre upon acre of farmland turned golden brown under the hot sun.

Alek Gaynor, a territory manager for Papé Machinery, said when drought impacts farmers, the entire community feels the economy slow down.

“On the whole, goods sales and equipment sales have suffered a little bit. We are not going under, but everyone is going to take a bite of it — car dealers, equipment dealers, mom and pop grocery stores,” said Gaynor.

The drought is only part of the problem, said Gaynor. Compounding the situation is the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which requires more water to flow down the Deschutes River in winter for aquatic wildlife, leaving less for farmers.

“I don’t believe this area will survive another couple of years with this going the way it is,” said Gaynor. “Something has to give. We can’t survive the drought and the HCP, or we have to have a spectacular three winters.”

The Habitat Conservation Plan is primarily designed to support habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, which was listed as a threatened species in 2014. While the HCP guarantees higher water levels in winter, little can be done when hot weather impacts its environment — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said 2021 has been a “challenging year” for the Oregon spotted frog in the Deschutes Basin.

“Drought conditions have resulted in drying of habitat that spotted frogs depend on,” Bridget Moran, the field representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bend said in a statement. “Ongoing monitoring efforts will continue to track the status of the species into the future.”

Key to recovery from the drought for Central Oregon is filling up Wickiup Reservoir, which has been fully depleted three of the past four years. It’s filling again but is only on pace to reach just over half of capacity.

“If all things remain the same, we will be somewhere in the vicinity where we ended up last year,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “If we have a really wet year, we will be higher, but how much I don’t know, and there is no way to say.”

Gorman said even more than just precipitation, the region needs colder temperatures in order to increase snowpack — at the mountaintops and at lower elevations, too.

“We need it to cool down in the mountains and start receiving snow at this time,” said Gorman. “The rainfall was beneficial in October and the first part of November, but what we want to see now is snowfall accumulation.”

Snow is even more critical this year following the June heat dome that melted off much of the snowpack, depriving the environment of late-season melt off, necessary for both agriculture and the environment.

“This increased evaporation from the landscape to near-record levels removed water from the landscape before it could enter into our water supply,” said O’Neill. “Thus, it made the drought much worse than the precipitation record would suggest.”

The drought is among the four worst in Oregon’s recorded history, with the last drought of similar severity occurring in 1977, said O’Neill.

For Bend to recover substantially from the drought, the city needs 152% of average precipitation for the next six months, or about 11.6 inches of precipitation, said O’Neill. This amount of precipitation has only occurred in 6% of recorded water years in the city’s history.

“While drought recovery within the next six months is possible, it is unfortunately unlikely,” said O’Neill. “The most likely scenario is that it will take several years of average to above-average precipitation to fully recover. Our start to the water year is great, but it will take much more than that to fully recover from the drought.”


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