Despite recent heavy rains, the water outlook in the Klamath Basin remains bleak.
According to Ryan Sandler, a Medford National Weather Service meteorologist, last week’s storm system dropped about two inches of rain in the Basin. Since Feb. 1, Basin snowpack has increased 12 percent, bringing the total to 32 percent of normal snowpack, but it’s not enough for a full rebound just yet, he said.
“This has been one of the few good months in a long time. We’ve improved, but it’s still only about one-third of normal,” he said.
Gov. John Kitzhaber announced drought declarations Friday for four Southern Oregon counties: Klamath, Lake, Harney and Malheur.
According to Don Bader, acting area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Basin Area Office, the declaration makes certain legal tools available to the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to mitigate the impacts of drought.
Specifically, under a drought declaration, OWRD can grant emergency permits to certain types of water uses, waive notice requirements with respect to new groundwater wells, allow temporary water exchanges and transfers, and grant emergency preference of water use for human consumption and/or stock.
“Reclamation will continue to coordinate with OWRD with respect to any emergency drought orders that directly affect BOR project operations. Reclamation also will continue to coordinate closely with Basin stakeholders and the Klamath Water and Power Agency (KWAPA) to help effectively implement their 2014 Water User Mitigation Program (WUMP) to avoid involuntary water shortages,” Bader said in an email.
WUMP is a cooperative agreement between KWAPA and the BOR, in which irrigators “bid” their application by providing a dollar amount per acre they would like to be paid for not diverting surface water to grow crops. When irrigation water supply is not sufficient to meet anticipated demand, the program forbears the use of surface water in an effort to balance supply and demand. The application process is open until Feb. 21.
Gary Derry, on-project alfalfa and small grain farmer who idled his land in 2010, said Kitzhaber’s drought declaration will create options to help farmers get through another tough year, but land idling is not the answer for him.
“Land idling is a pittance of what I need. That land has to generate a lot of money for me to maintain it or it goes back to the bank,” he said. “I need to have full production every year to stay competitive and generate an income for my family.”
On-project cattle rancher John Hall said the drought declaration doesn’t mean much to him yet as far as resource availability, but he’s preparing for the worst.
“If we don’t see some significant weather changes, it’s going to devastate us. I personally will have to sell my cattle,” he said.
Hall relies on irrigation water from the Enterprise district. If Hall qualifies for a well pumping permit, he’ll still have to use water sparingly, he said.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen, but the outlook is scary,” Hall said. “The Basin depends on that snowpack.”
The recent precipitation will help improve the overall Klamath Basin water supply, but much more is needed to alleviate the drought and to ensure an adequate supply to meet all the competing needs in 2014, Bader said in the email.
According to Sandler, a ridge of high pressure over the Pacific Ocean that has been blocking moisture from moving inland has largely broken up, but experts are seeing indications that a smaller high pressure system will take its place and cause continued dryness.