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Low snowfall creates bleak water supply outlook for Oregon

Oregon farms are looking at a bleak water supply forecast for summer as winter snowpack continues to lag behind average.


Capital Press

Published on February 9, 2018 10:37AM

Warm weather and meager mountain snow could spell a difficult water year ahead for Oregon farms.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service released its monthly water supply outlook report for February, and overall conditions are not looking good in most basins across the state.

Of 137 monitoring stations, every single one recorded below-average snowpack as of Feb. 1. Most were less than 50 percent of normal, according to the NRCS.

Julie Koeberle, snow survey hydrologist, said the chances for a full snowpack recovery are low, but stressed there is still time for conditions to improve. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center is calling for cooler and wetter weather over the next three months, offering a glimmer of hope.

However, if Oregon expects to fully catch up on snowpack by April 1, the next two months would have to deliver 125-225 percent of normal precipitation, with all of that falling as snow.

“Water managers will need to carefully evaluate water supplies this summer if snow and spring rains fail to bring relief,” Koeberle said.

Northeast Oregon continues to boast the highest snowpack in the state, at 64 percent of normal in the Grande Ronde, Powder, Burnt and Imnaha basins, and 55 percent of normal in the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basins.

Those averages drop as low as 38 percent in the Willamette Basin, 35 percent in the Owyhee Basin and 33 percent in the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon, where streamflow forecasts between April and September are all project to be less than 60 percent of normal.

John Wolf, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, said his board met for more than four hours Thursday to discuss drought planning.

“It’s pretty bleak down here right now,” Wolf said. “We’re all praying for a February or March miracle.”

Already, Wolf said the district is planning to move back water availability by about two weeks, from April 15 to April 23 or 24. He added it is still not clear whether the state will allow drought permits for wells this season.

“Nothing is really cast in stone yet,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, operated by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has painted most of eastern, central and southern Oregon in either “abnormally dry” or moderate drought conditions.

Despite low predicted streamflows, reservoirs continue to store average or above-average amounts of water, providing a much-needed buffer for farmers heading into summer. The lowest reservoir levels for any basin as a whole is 98 percent of average in the Rogue and Umpqua basins of southwest Oregon. The highest are in the Owyhee and Malheur basins in southeast Oregon, at 139 percent of average.


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