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Drop in the bucket

Scotta Callister

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on May 26, 2015 4:04PM

Source: National Drought Monitor

JOHN DAY – File the past week’s heavy rains in the “looks can be deceiving” category.

Officials say that shot of moisture, while welcome, isn’t enough to deter the region’s now-inevitable plunge into extreme drought this summer.

Last Friday, Gov. Kate Brown made it official, issuing a drought declaration for Grant County and seven others: Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Morrow, Umatilla and Wasco.

In all, 15 counties now are under drought declarations, a measure that allows more flexibility in managing water when the supplies dry up.

The declaration follows a sobering report from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, which warned that streamflows will be significantly lower than normal this season due to the winter’s record-low snowpacks.

“The winter of 2015 will go down in Oregon history books as the year that was dominated by bare ground in the mountains,” said Julie Koberle, NRCS hydrologist.

The agency reported Oregon’s snowpack, as of May 1, stood at 11 percent of normal. Only 15 of 112 snow monitoring sites across Oregon had any snow at all.

Only one of the 15 measuring sites listed for the John Day Basin region – the Anthony Lake Snow Course – had snow on May 1, and the rest were bare.

Across the basin, the forecasts for summer streamflows range from 10 percent to 52 percent of the average for the May-September period.

Scientists say the snowpack not only was less than normal, but it peaked five to eight weeks earlier than normal. Five SNOTEL sites had their earliest snowpack peak on record.

“Water managers in the basin should expect significant water shortages this summer,” according to the May 1 report from NRCS.

While most of the state is pegged for moderate to severe drought, the forecast in Eastern Oregon is for extreme drought, according to the national Drought Monitor.

Koberle said that means water shortages are likely, and especially for areas that depend on streamflows without reservoirs – like Grant County.

“The John Day Basin relies on snowmelt runoff to sustain stream flows through the summer months in most years,” said Scott Oviatt, an NRCS hydrologist.

Sporadic precipitation won’t counter the effects of record-low snowpack and warm temperatures on streamflows for long, he said.

“While welcome, this is most likely a brief break from the regionwide drought conditions that are impacting water supply – and thus agricultural and forestry concerns in the region,” he said.

Once the area starts to dry out – soon – the creeks and rivers will be back to below average levels, he said.

Oviatt said one benefit of the recent rains may be to temporarily dampen soils and low-tier fire fuels, but only for the short term.

Rob Pentzer, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s John Day Unit forester, sees a hot time ahead for fire crews.

“I’m afraid we’re receiving our June rains in May,” he said last week. “Everything is a month earlier as expected.”

While there might be a little reprieve now from the drought, he said, “It will turn hot and dry before we know it, and with the added growth to our grasses we will potentially have another busy fire season.”

Meanwhile, the NRCS has announced that $21 million in funding will be available to help agricultural landowners in eight states, including Oregon, mitigate the effects of drought on their lands. Plans will roll out soon for how that will look in Oregon. For information, visit the NRCS website or contact the local office in John Day.


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