Cool, wet winter in store for Pacific Northwest, forecaster says

The Farmers Almanac calls for a mild, dry winter in the Pacific Northwest.

Not so fast, said Eric Snodgrass, principal atmospheric scientist for Nutrien Ag Solutions in Champaign, Ill.

At least three cold and wet weather systems are heading toward the Northwest  from Alaska and Canada in the next 10 days, Snodgrass said.

Snow could accumulate in the Cascade and Rocky mountains, which Snodgrass hopes will continue.

“The more precipitation we can pile up in the mountains, the better our situation is going to be for going into the 2021 growing season,” Snodgrass said.

Snodgrass expects the pattern to continue through Thanksgiving and into December, with temperatures that are average to lower.

La Nina — a complex weather pattern that results from lower ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean — will likely be moderate strength through the winter, Snodgrass said.

He compared this winter to the winters of 1998-1999, 2005-2006, 2007-2008, 2010-2011 and 2016-2017. Cold air came from the northwest, resulting in more precipitation, he said.

NOAA’s winter outlook also favors a colder northern tier of the U.S., with above-average precipitation.

“Our highest probability is going to be toward a cooler and wetter winter,” he said.

Snodgrass delivered predictions about the coming winter, and beyond, during the Nov. 6 Northwest Farm Credit Services virtual ag outlook conference .

Lawsuit aims to forbid organic certification of hydroponics

A lawsuit against the USDA is seeking to forbid organic certification of hydroponic operations, arguing only soil-grown crops can legally qualify as organic.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group, claims that cultivating plants hydroponically in nutrient solution violates the requirement to “foster soil fertility” of the Organic Foods Production Act, a 1990 statute that governs organic farming.

“That goes against a basic organic principle, and those principles are encoded in law,” said Sylvia Wu, attorney for the Center for Food Safety as well as several other farms and organizations suing the USDA.

Controversies over hydroponic production have been percolating in the organic community for years, but the plaintiffs decided to file a complaint after the USDA rejected their 2019 petition to exclude such operations from organic certification, she said.

Hydroponic crops are grown without soil. Instead, nutrients are mixed with water and go directly to the plants’ roots.

At this point, consumers at grocery stores don’t know whether they’re buying produce from an organic farmer who’s working to improve the soil, Wu said. “That organic tomato could very well be grown in a warehouse in Mexico.”

A spokesperson for the USDA said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In denying the petition, the agency said that “a categorical prohibition to hydroponic production is not justified by the OFPA.”

Provisions in the law referring to improving soil quality or crop rotation only apply to farms that rely on soil but don’t require that “all organic production occur in a soil-based environment,” the USDA said.

Though resources are cycled and conserved differently in hydroponic operations, that doesn’t render them “incompatible with the vision for organic agriculture” in the statute, the USDA said.

“Hydroponic operations produce food in a way that can minimize damage to soil and water, and that can support diverse biological communities,” the agency said.

Organic hydroponic growers are disappointed in the lawsuit and believe its accusations reflect a lack of understanding of their production methods, said Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents such operations.

Hydroponic greenhouses still rely on microbes to break down nutrients into forms that are available to plants and rely on composting green waste, similarly to other farming operations, he said.

Hydroponic systems also greatly reduce the demand for irrigation water while producing crops efficiently, which reduces their environmental footprint, Frankel said.

The OFPA and associated regulations are intended to provide farmers with flexibility, so not every practice mentioned in the statute is required, he said.

“I don’t think the USDA is about prescribing a one-size-fits-all,” Frankel said. “Every grower has their site-specific conditions that dictate how they grow.”

The complaint is motivated by a desire to limit supplies of organic fresh tomatoes grown in greenhouses, which have come to dominate the market, he said. “The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit stated they don’t like that competition and feel like the prices need to be higher.”

The debate over hydroponics in organic farming stretches back more than two decades, with the National Organic Standards Board — which advises USDA — repeatedly reversing itself about whether the practice should be allowed.

Most recently, however, the NOSB voted in favor of continuing to allow organic certification of hydroponic operations in 2017.

The Center for Food Safety considers this decision an “anomaly,” as the broader industry narrative demonstrates the organic community’s resistance to the method, said Wu, the group’s attorney.

“It reflects the difference between corporate organic and family organic farmers.”

The NOSB’s 2017 recommendation won’t likely harm the lawsuit’s chances, as the statute is clear that improving soils is mandatory for organic farms, she said.

“Some requirements are discretionary, but not the soil fertility requirement,” Wu said.

Weather forecast: La Nina’s on the way

SPOKANE — A La Nina is on the way, bringing with it wetter weather later this spring.

That’s the prediction of weatherman Art Douglas, who delivered his long-range forecast Feb. 4 at the Spokane Ag Show. Douglas is a professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and is a fixture at the show.

El Nino and La Nina are complex weather patterns that result from variations in the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperatures.

Lower ocean surface temperatures off the West Coast mean a La Nina will develop later in the spring, Douglas said.

“Here in the wheat area, (the forecast is) about normal to above normal precipitation, which is what La Nina would suggest,” he said.

Douglas called for a “warmish” May, with normal to above normal precipitation in the Pacific Northwest.

His summer forecast calls for a warm and dry June and July and a cool and wet August.

In the meantime, the Pacific Northwest has become wetter in the last 30 days, following an El Nino in which the region was “very dry” from April through September, Douglas said.

A high-pressure ridge in Alaska will block Pacific moisture from reaching the West in February, Douglas said.

The pattern will persist into March.

“So it’s going to have an impact on spring weather, but not as bad as it could,” Douglas said.

Winterkill of wheat will be a concern in February and early March, Douglas said.

Through the spring, high pressure ridging in the Pacific and Southwest will favor dry weather elsewhere in the West.

From March through May, Douglas predicts normal temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and slightly drier conditions west of the Cascades.

Douglas said the 2020 forecast appears most similar to the years 1989, 1990, 2008 and 2018.

“Do not go and look at one of those years alone and say, ‘This is what I’m going to have this year,’” he said. “It’s all of these four years together. It’s a blend.”

Warming in the Pacific Ocean over the past five years was due to weakened wind systems and weaker ocean currents. Warming in the Atlantic Ocean is due to enhanced wind systems and ocean currents.

“The two oceans aren’t behaving the same, in fact, they’re the opposite of each other,” Douglas said. “If you believe in global warming, both oceans would have to be behaving the same, and they’re not. These are decadal climate changes we’re dealing with right now, and apparently we’re getting ready to change.”

The forecast should mean a less intense fire season for the Pacific Northwest, which this year will likely end earlier, Douglas said.

Farmers can expect “better early fall moisture and cooler temperatures,” he said.

Blue gold: Put water rights to good use

SALEM — The most important asset farmers own is not the land, said Peter Mohr, a natural resources attorney. “It’s the water right.”

Because water is considered blue gold, it provokes disputes across the U.S.

“Water rights are a serious business,” said Mohr. “I came from the intermountain West in Colorado, where people bludgeon, kill and maim over this stuff.”

Mohr was speaking to a crowd of farmers at the Northwest Ag Show Jan. 16 in Salem, Ore.

Know your rights
Mohr said he gets numerous calls from landowners who don’t understand their water rights.

Farmers who inherit land, said Mohr, don’t always know the historic water use for their property. Those who buy land, he said, often don’t understand the water rights connected to the property.

“Realtors don’t know jack about water rights,” said Mohr. “I’ve seen people buy properties and set up operations just to see that the water right is nowhere near what they thought it was. Farmers need to know the rights.”

‘Use it or lose it’
Because water is a precious resource, legally, a farmer has to put the water to beneficial use or lose the right to it. Irrigation, for example, can be approved by the Oregon Department of Water Resources as an official “beneficial use.”

According to ORS 540.610, one of Oregon’s statutes regarding water rights, if a farm fails to use all or part of its water right for five successive years, the farm can forfeit its right.

“What about me?” asked an Oregon sheep farmer who did not wish to be identified to protect his water rights. “I have an 85-acre sheep farm. When I had 180 head of sheep, I used the water all the time. But I’m getting older, so now I’m down to 30 head with just 35 acres of irrigation. If I irrigated the whole 85 acres, I’d have to make hay, sell it, buy fertilizer. It’s stupid for me to irrigate. So how can I keep my water rights?”

To keep the rights, answered Mohr, farmers like this one have to get creative.

Turning water into money

If you decide to sell or lease out your water right, Mohr advised, get a true appraisal first. He said too many farmers accept an undervaluation of their water rights.

But more often, farmers have had the water rights to their property held in the family or business for generations, and are unwilling to give up the rights. This is when farms need to strategize how to monetize their unused water.

One option, said Mohr, is for a farm to temporarily transfer its rights to another user. This cannot just be done by casually inviting a neighbor to use the excess water. To keep the right, the farmer who holds the deed to the water must apply to get the transfer approved by the state.

A farm can even temporarily transfer water rights to the state in exchange for payment.

Another option is for a farmer, working through an attorney, to set up an agreement with a water conservation agency that benefits the agency, the farm and fish.

One of Mohr’s clients in John Day, Ore., did exactly this. The water supply was insufficient to sustain the local fish population during dry seasons. The farm did not always max out its water rights. So Mohr negotiated an agreement in which Oregon Water Trust, a conservation organization, would pay the farm to release a portion of its water to the fish when the flow reached a specific low point. The payment, said Mohr, was enough not only to compensate the farm for any lost crop profits, but to outfit the farm with “a real slug of money” every year.

Mohr said he hopes other organizations, such as Bonneville Power Administration, set up agreements like this — using monetary incentives to help both farmers and the environment.

“Ag has all the marbles,” said Mohr, addressing the farmers. “You guys own the most important asset in the West. Know it and use it well.”

Oregon snowpack well below normal heading into 2020

Early season snowfall is lagging again across Oregon, potentially foreshadowing another dry and difficult summer ahead for farmers and ranchers.

But as 2019 proved, things can turn around quickly, giving plenty of reason for hope.

According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Oregon’s snow-water equivalent — the amount of water contained within snow — is just 45% of normal statewide. Every water basin is measuring below average for snow, with the exception of the Owyhee Basin in southeast Oregon, which is holding up at 117% of normal.

The lowest totals are in the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins at 25% of normal, and the Willamette Basin at 26%.

Mountain snowpack is crucial for replenishing streams and reservoirs for farms and fish, especially in Eastern Oregon. As snow melts, it trickles down into creeks and rivers, sustaining healthy stream flows while providing irrigation water for crops and livestock.

Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor for NRCS Oregon, said the agency will release its first water supply outlook report by Jan. 10. Based on the current lack of snow, Oviatt said he anticipates lower water availability earlier in the spring, though there is still time to rebound.

“We’re not in panic mode yet,” Oviatt said. “It is early in the (water) year … We can see some improvement, depending on conditions.”

The water year, as defined by hydrologists, begins on Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30 of the following calendar year. November and December are typically much cooler and wetter months for Oregon, Oviatt said, however most of the state’s 90 snow monitoring sites are measuring less than 8 inches of snow-water equivalent.

Perhaps more concerning, overall precipitation including rain is averaging just 50% of normal statewide. The Oregon Water Resources Department reports that November in particular was one of the top five driest months on record for northwest Oregon.

Racquel Rancier, spokeswoman for OWRD, said that average stream flows were just 40% of normal statewide as of Dec. 30.

“We certainly would like to see better and more consistent stream flows and a greater snowpack at this point,” Rancier said. “Conditions need to greatly improve in the coming months in order to have a more normal water year.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly 98% of Oregon listed in some stage of drought, ranging from “abnormally dry” to “moderate.”

Conditions were much the same at this time last year, too, when snowpack was just 42% of normal levels in early January. Then came February, which brought drought-busting winter storms that dumped several feet of snow at higher elevations and boosted snow-water equivalent by 20-30%.

With two-thirds of winter still to go, Oviatt said he is optimistic for improvement.

“At this point, our message will be to watch the conditions,” he said. “Let’s just hope for improvement at this point.”

Snow-water equivalent is measured using what is known as a “snow pillow,” made out of a synthetic rubber and filled with an organic antifreeze solution. As snow falls, it compresses the pillow and a sensor measures the pressure in real time, which is used to calculate the amount of water in the snow.

The data is then compared to a 30-year average between 1981-2010 to come up with a percent of normal.

Between the “snowmageddon” of February and drier-than-usual November, Oviatt said increasingly large and unpredictable swings in weather variability are making it harder for the NRCS to accurately predict water supplies until later in the season.

That could lead to changes in modeling, Oviatt said, though he did not elaborate.

“It’s a changing world,” he said. “We’re trying to keep up with technology as our partner agencies are doing. It’s an ongoing process at this point.”

Early season snowfall, precipitation lagging across Oregon

SALEM — A dry start to the fall season is raising some concerns among state water managers about the possibility of drought returning to Oregon, especially in the Rogue and Umpqua river basins.

Overall precipitation is measuring well below normal for the water year that began Sept. 30, according to the latest water conditions report from the Oregon Water Resources Department. The deficit ranges from nearly an inch below normal east of the Cascades, to more than 5 inches below normal in parts of southwest Oregon.

While no part of the state is currently in drought, the agency’s report states that could change in the coming weeks unless there is a marked change in weather patterns.

Statewide, average precipitation at sites measured by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is just 45% of normal across the state.

The highest totals as of Nov. 18 were in northeast Oregon, including 71% in the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basins and 67% in the Grande Ronde, Powder, Burnt and Imnaha basins.

The lowest totals are in southwest and south-central Oregon, at 26% of normal in the Rogue and Umpqua basins; 24% in the Klamath Basin; and 21% in the Goose Lake and Lake County area.

The Willamette Basin — home of the state’s leading agricultural counties by value of products — is trending right in the middle at 45% of normal.

Stream flows are still averaging slightly above normal across Oregon, thanks to drought-busting record snowfall in February and heavy rains in April that bolstered supplies over the summer. However, the report cautions that more is needed to maintain that positive momentum.

“In response to recent dry weather, flows in many streams in Western Oregon have declined significantly over the past two weeks,” the report states. “In some areas of southwestern Oregon, stream flows are less than 10% of normal.”

The highest stream flows were in the Sandy, North Coast, Mid Coast and Umatilla basins at more than 130% of normal for the month of October, dropping down to about 53% of normal on the South Coast.

As irrigators start eyeing relief, short- and long-term weather forecasts offer a mixed bag.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicts below-average precipitation over the next two weeks, and an equal chance for above- or below-normal precipitation across most of the state over the next three months.

The lone exception, once again, is southwest Oregon, which is looking at a greater chance of continued dry conditions.

At this time last year, the entire state of Oregon was listed in some stage of drought — including extreme drought across portions of southern and central Oregon. Then came the February snow and April rain, proving just how quickly conditions can change.

“We always prefer to see a good start to the water year,” said Racquel Rancier, spokeswoman for the OWRD. “This year has been a slow start with below-normal precipitation, but it really is too early to be able to determine how water conditions will look in a few months and whether drought conditions will occur.”

A dry farming trial produces some success

In mid-May, as soon as the sun came out and the soil warmed, Teresa Retzlaff dug into the earth at 46 North Farm. She filled holes with seeds and starts of zucchini, dry beans, summer squash and more. She covered the holes with soil and made sure the beds were free of weeds.

And then, she walked away.

About 10 miles down the road, the same thing happened at LaNa Conscious Farm. On a 2,000-square-foot plot of land, Larry and Nancy Nelson’s field was filled with the same plant varieties and, aside from light weeding, was left untouched.

Now, in late August, the starts have grown to produce-bearing plants. The zucchinis’ wide leaves shade dozens of vegetables, the full-sized tomatoes are ripening from green to red. One of Retzlaff’s winter squash is more than 2 feet long.

All of this happened without any irrigation.

“I didn’t really think it was going to work,” Retzlaff said. “I kind of thought they’d all be dead in a few weeks and they weren’t … It was phenomenal.”

The process is called dry farming. Farmers who practice it do not irrigate their plants throughout the dry summer season. Aside from occasional rainfall, plants rely only on moisture from below the surface to sustain growth.

It’s a historic agricultural practice, but until recently it has remained widely unheard of on the Oregon Coast.

In 2015, Amy Garrett, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, kick-started a dry farm trial that now stretches across the state. As of 2019, three farms on the coast participate in the trial, two of them just a short drive from downtown Astoria.

“It seems like the coast is a really good place for dry farming, mostly because of the climate,” said Matthew Davis, the project coordinator at Oregon State for dry farm site suitability. “It’s a lot cooler on the coast … It’s just a more forgiving place.”

Davis began working with the project in May under professor Alex Stone and alongside Garrett. Their research is ongoing.

Davis visited both North Coast farms in May, where he installed plants and soil moisture monitors. The monitors are inserted and left in the ground, where the small white rods and green cords help scientists and farmers know how much moisture is being held in the soil below.

“Dry farming doesn’t mean that no water is used by the plant,” Davis said. “Water is stored in the soil, it’s held there.”

The farm’s soil type controls how much water is held. On the coast, moist soil and a high water table, coupled with the cool, damp climate is the reason both farms have seen success.

“The plants are less stressed, I think, in the coastal environment,” Garrett said. “Teresa was kind of our pioneer there.”

Quality, not quantity

Retzlaff got involved with the project in 2016, and has dry farmed a portion of her plants ever since. This year, she is dry farming eight rows of produce for the trial’s research and 10 additional rows on her own.

Dry farming is not a yield-maximization strategy. In order for dry farming to work, plants are plotted more sparsely to decrease competition and help ensure each plant’s roots has access to enough water.

“You can’t plant as densely as you would if you are irrigating,” Retzlaff said. “Because all the moisture they have is just what’s in the soil.”

But for Retzlaff, her main goal isn’t the quantity of produce, it’s the quality.

Dry-farmed produce typically has a stronger flavor and a firmer texture. Retzlaff strongly prefers the taste of her dry-farmed crops.

Oregon State’s small farms collaborative conducted blind taste tests, where consumers and farmers preferred the dry-farmed produce over the same variety that was irrigated.

“They have a very intense flavor because they’re not watery,” Retzlaff said. “Because you’re not watering them.”

Last year, 46 North Farm sold their dry-farmed produce to local restaurants. The Astoria Golf and Country Club’s kitchen bought more than 80 pounds of dry-farmed zucchini and squash.

“They had a really nice, concentrated flavor,” said chef Gehrett Billinger, who used the produce on specialty dishes, to create kimchi and to flavor beverages and meat marinades. “It’s a really really delightful flavor.”

“And,” he said, “I like that it uses less resources.”

Resource conservation is one of the aspects that initially sparked the dry-farmed trial, and it’s a theme that keeps farmers and researchers coming back year after year. As the climate changes, summer water availability has become a pressing issue.

“It’s of more interest now because of drought and decreased summer water availability,” Garrett said. “A lot of people are looking at alternatives to irrigated crop production in our dry season.”

The farmers that participate in the trial meet annually to discuss how specific crops weathered the dry season and exchange ideas to improve the next year’s yield.

“I think that this collaborative approach of adapting to a changing climate is super important given the predictions for summer water availability into the future,” she said. “We’re going to see a lot less of it.”

Coastal farmers, whose summer season is cooler and wetter than farmers in the Willamette Valley, are still paying attention to summer water access.

“Water is one of those resources, I feel like especially out here on the coast, we really take for granted because it feels like it’s so abundant,” Retzlaff said. “Just because you have a lot of it doesn’t mean you have to use all of it.

“If you’re a farmer and you’re irrigating with that water or you’re pulling that water out of a creek or a stream in August, that’s water that’s not being left in a waterway to help fish habitat and wildlife habitat. I think the more we can share with wildlife habitat, the better.”

Inherent risk

Retzlaff recognizes that not all farmers can practice dry farming. There is inherent risk with the technique. It requires fertile, moist soil and more land to produce the same yield. For some crops, dry farming is not a profitable practice.

“Part of the learning curve is finding out which crops you can break even on,” she said. “The zucchini has more than paid for itself already,” as have some of the squash varieties.

Other products, such as the dry beans, won’t make it to the public market, but will feed the 46 North Farm team throughout the upcoming season. Retzlaff will likely harvest just one or two melons per plant this year.

But even without the high yield, she saved time and money by not paying for water or labor to irrigate the plants for months.

“I feel like that’s profitable,” Retzlaff said. “There’s also the knowledge. To me, that’s a huge return on investment.”

There is also an economic incentive. On the Nelson’s farm, their winter water bill is typically around $35 a month. In the summer, that bill can be up to $250.

“I am fascinated in growing things without water because water is a big expense,” Nelson said. “The dry farming for me is just another aspect of the farming itself. It’s another tool in the tool shed that we can utilize to grow some things less expensive.”

Both farms still irrigate the majority of their crops, but they are hopeful to continue transitioning and evolving their dry farming for many seasons to come.

“The more that I can do dry-farmed, the more that I will do,” Retzlaff said. “It’s less of a resource that we’re pulling on, and I honestly feel like the plants are better for it.”

Dry Farm Field Day at OSU Oak Creek Center

The OSU Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture will host its Dry Farm Field Day from 4 to 6 p.m. on Aug. 28.

The drop-in style event  includes a 30-minute guided field tour at 5 p.m. Participants will see see dry farmed potatoes, tomatoes, dry beans, melons, and winter squash. The crops were only irrigated once, in May, since their planting.

The OSU Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture is located at 844 SW 35th St., Corvallis.

The event is free, but registration is required.

“There will also be an opportunity to do side-by-side tastings of irrigated and dry farmed tomatoes and melons, visit with dry farmers and researchers, and learn about the various research projects engaging with the Dry Farming Collaborative,” according to the event website.

As El Nino fades, winter forecast a ‘crap shoot’

The Pacific Ocean along the equator cooled in June and is expected to be at normal temperatures in a month or two, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday.

The cooling and rapid demise of an El Nino system was unforeseen a month ago by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. The drop in sea-surface and subsurface temperatures leaves long-range weather forecasters with no strong clue about the months ahead.

“The bottom line is that it’s pretty close to a crap shoot for this fall and winter,” Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said. “The deck isn’t stacked one way or the other.”

A weak El Nino formed in February. A month ago, NOAA said there was a 66% chance it would stay through the summer and a 50 to 55% chance it would last through the winter.

One forecasting model used by NOAA even predicted a moderate, rather than weak, El Nino in the coming winter. El Nino winters are generally warmer than usual in the Northwest, and less snowpack accumulates for use in summer irrigation.

In a turnabout, NOAA now says the odds favor neutral conditions, beginning next month and continuing through the winter. “Neutral means things are more more up in the air,” NOAA climate scientist Michelle L’Heureux said.

Last month’s outlook, a 50-50 chance that El Nino would stick around, reflected uncertainty about the course of atmospheric conditions. In the past month, the conditions fell in line with a weakening El Nino, according to NOAA.

“It was very difficult for us to predict what was going to happen,” L’Heureux said. “This situation now is not as opaque.”

In the mid-Pacific along the equator, the stretch that most influences seasonal forecasts, the sea-surface temperature cooled in June to 0.6 degrees celsius above normal from 0.7 degrees celsius above normal. The threshold for an El Nino is 0.5 degrees celsius above normal.

Subsurface temperatures were above average at the beginning of June and returned to near average by the end of the month.

As El Nino fades, the chances of an La Nina forming rise, though it’s still a long shot. NOAA estimated the chance of a La Nina prevailing by December at 16%. Last month, the chance was only 6%.

La Nina, a cooling of the sea’s surface, generally means colder Northwest winters.

In the meantime, less precipitation continues to be seen in Washington. The U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday that 55% of the state is in severe or moderate drought, nearly unchanged from the week before.

Assistant State Climatologist Karin Bumbaco said more of Central Washington is drying out, but still not in a drought.

Recent rain in Western Washington stopped conditions from worsening, but did not pull the region out of drought, she said. “If you look at the long-term picture, the drought is not over.”

Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in about half the state in May. No area has been added to the declaration since then.

NOAA will release a new three-month outlook July 18. When neutral sea temperatures prevail, forecasters often base their predictions on recent climate trends.

Drought loosens its hold on Oregon this year

While parts of western Washington are already grappling with severe drought heading into the summer, Oregon appears to be in better shape than last year.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 17% of the state is in some stage of drought, compared to more than 90% at this time a year ago.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service also released its final water basin outlook report for June, showing that overall precipitation in Oregon is 95% of normal dating back to October 2018. Basins in Central and Eastern Oregon are mostly above average, thanks to record-breaking February snowfall and heavy rains in April.

The driest areas statewide include the Willamette Basin, at 89% of average precipitation as of June 10, and the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins at 80%.

It is a stark contrast to last year, when by June Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had already declared drought emergencies in Klamath, Lake, Grant, Harney and Wheeler counties. The governor would declare additional droughts through the summer in Baker, Douglas, Gilliam, Lincoln, Malheur and Morrow counties.

Drought in 2018 was fueled by below-average snowpack combined with unseasonably warm weather that melted snow up to 2 1/2 times faster than usual at higher elevations. That left farmers and ranchers to grapple with water shortages, while leaving forests and rangeland especially prone to wildfire.

Conditions are much more favorable this year. The NRCS reports that 70% of long-term snow monitoring sites melted out within a week of their normal time frame. As of June 1, 13 sites still had some snow, which is also normal for the time of year.

Farmers and ranchers are looking at mixed stream flows from east to west through the end of the irrigation season in September. Streams and rivers varied widely in average flows during May, from 30% to 80% of normal across most of Western Oregon, and 100% to 190% in Eastern Oregon.

Reservoir storage continues to be a bright spot overall, with most reservoirs holding average to well above average amounts of water, according to the state Water Resources Department.

As summer heats up, Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest are again gearing up for another busy wildfire season, with the National Interagency Fire Center calling for a normal to above-normal potential for large fires.

Officials declared the start of fire season on June 10 in the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Central Oregon District, which includes 2.3 million acres of public and private forestland. District Forester Rob Pentzer said late May rain helped reduce fire risk, “but the recent warming trend is quickly drying fuels again and with limited moisture in the forecast it is unlikely that the risk will drop again.”

So far, one fires has been recorded in Oregon. The Taylor Butte fire was started by lightning on June 1 about 20 miles northeast of Chiloquin, Ore., and burned 293 acres before it was contained.