The Bulletin - Crook County declares drought emergency for fourth straight year

Date:
January 26, 2023
The Bulletin - Crook County declares drought emergency for fourth straight year

Crook County has declared a state of drought emergency for the fourth consecutive year. The measure was taken so that its residents can tap into state funds to alleviate the financial burden brought on by the exceptionally dry conditions.

In a declaration posted on its website, the county stated it’s “suffering widespread and severe economic damage, potential injuries and loss of property as a result of the drought.” Gov. Tina Kotek must approve it before the county can apply for aid.

One year ago, most of Central Oregon was experiencing so-called “exceptional drought,” the highest of four categories as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Today, the only remaining toehold that exceptional drought has in the state is in a portion of Crook County.“We are getting more precipitation this year, but it’s still not enough to fill up the reservoirs,” said Crook County Judge Seth Crawford. “We are confident that even with lots of moisture this winter and spring we are still going to have trouble providing water to farmers.”

Exceptional drought covers 45% of Crook County with the remaining 55% of the county one level lower. The U.S. Drought Monitor is refreshed weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska.

Reservoirs remain critically low across Central Oregon, but those in Crook County are especially hard hit. As of Sunday, Prineville Reservoir was 12% full and Ochoco Reservoir was 11% full, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In terms of snowpack, as of Wednesday, the area that includes the Upper Deschutes River and the Crooked River has snowpack that is 96% of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service website. Precipitation for the water year, which started on Oct. 1, is 84% of normal.

Jefferson County has also made a request to the state for drought assistance. The request for drought assistance must go through reviews at several different committees and then a recommendation made to the governor, said Kyle Gorman, regional manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The two requests are the first time that any county ever made a request for drought assistance in January, according to the Water Resources Department website. Requests are typically made between the months of March and June.

Crawford said he has seen firsthand the impacts of the drought on Crook County residents.“Springs that have been running for years are drying up. They are having to truck water out to some pretty remote locations,” said Crawford. “There are also higher costs for fuel, so they are getting pinched from all angles.”

By declaring drought, Crook County farmers and others in the community will be eligible to receive grants or low-interest loans to pay for different aspects of their operations, said Crawford. The county has declared drought 13 times in its history, all since 1991.

“The restriction on water allocations to the farmers not only limits their production but also determines what crops they may be able to plant,” said Crook County Commissioner Jerry Brummer. “Both of our reservoirs have had limited flat-water usage for the last three years, which also hurts our local economy.”

Why exceptional drought continues to maintain a grip only on Crook County while the rest of the Western U.S. is seeing drought levels reduced to lower levels is not entirely clear, said Larry O’Neill, Oregon’s state climatologist.

However, he and other scientists say they have noticed an “exaggerated rain-shadow effect” on the east sides of the Cascades in recent years, indicating more severe drought on the east side of the Cascades compared to the west side. The rain shadow of the Cascades tends to be more exaggerated during La Niña years, O’Neill said.

“It is not clear yet why this linkage between La Niña and exaggerated rain shadowing exists, but it is something that we’re looking into,” said O’Neill.

Crawford believes juniper trees are one likely reason why Crook County remains in exceptional drought while Deschutes and Jefferson counties are in lower levels of drought. The trees are notorious for consuming large amounts of groundwater — one tree will consume 5,000 gallons of water per year said Eric Klann, city engineer for Prineville.“The average home in Prineville uses around 90,000 gallons of water per year, so 18 juniper trees will consume the same amount of water as one home in Crook County,” said Klann.

Crawford said the county has a long-term plan of reducing the number of juniper trees in Crook County and a planned biomass facility could help achieve that goal. The county intends to use the juniper trees as fuel for the biomass facility, making them useful as a source of power while also preventing them from consuming groundwater.

“In the short term, we need relief for our water users now. That is why we did the drought declaration,” said Crawford. “But we are looking for long term solutions too, not just something that puts a band-aid on it. That is what this biomass facility can do.”

-Michael Kohn

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