Farmers in many parts of Oregon brace for low water year

Despite a mercifully wet April, water shortages remain likely for farmers and ranchers across much of Oregon, especially in southern and eastern portions of the state that are dealing with the onset of drought.

Gov. Kate Brown has already declared a drought emergency for Klamath and Grant counties, while a request from Harney County is pending, according to a spokeswoman for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service released its May 2018 Oregon basin outlook report, detailing stream flow forecasts heading into summer. Though statewide precipitation was 124 percent of average for April, most of the state is still below average for the water year dating back to October.

As of May 6, the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins are holding onto 95 percent of their normal snowpack for the season. Nowhere else is even close to average, with the John Day and Owyhee basins at 2 and 5 percent, respectively.

“During a normal May, about 45 percent of our snow monitoring sites are snow-free,” said Julie Koeberle, snow survey hydrologist for NRCS Oregon. “This year, 60 percent are without snow.”

Just eight snow monitoring sites recorded above-average snow for the season — all on the west side of the Cascade Range. More than half of the sites failed to break 70 percent of average snowpack.

All of that combines for gloomy summer stream flow forecasts throughout much of the state. Stream flows in the Klamath Basin are projected to be 26-68 percent of normal through September. The John Day Basin should range between 38 and 84 percent of average, and the Owyhee and Malheur basins are forecast at 30-55 percent of average.

Farther north, higher snowpack should translate into healthier flows for local streams. Flows should be 89-100 percent of normal in the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins; 79-97 percent in the Willamette Basin; 68-120 percent in the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basins; and 41-103 percent in the Grande Ronde, Powder, Burnt and Imnaha basins.

Reservoir levels vary across the state, though most are at or near capacity, which may be the saving grace for farmers and ranchers who rely on surface water for irrigation.

“Water supplies will still need to be carefully managed, but healthy reservoir storage across the state will likely provide some buffer for the low stream flows that are anticipated this summer,” the NRCS reports.

As bad as water supplies are shaping up this year, conditions still are not as bad as they were before the 2015 drought. That year holds the record for the lowest snowpack in Oregon, which was just 11 percent of normal as of May 1 and peaked months ahead of schedule.