Science & Environment

Oregon governor declares drought emergency in Klamath Basin

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. March 31, 2021 6:50 p.m. Updated: March 31, 2021 11:28 p.m.

Much of Klamath County is experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as south-central Oregon enters the spring with mountain snowpack levels well below normal.

Farmland framed by trees in the foreground and low rolling mountains in the distance.

Klamath County faces another drought emergency as dry conditions persist in 2021. This 2015 file photo shows a farmed field in the Klamath Basin.

Devan Schwartz / EarthFix

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday declared a drought emergency in Klamath County.


Much of the south-central Oregon county is experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and the area is entering the spring with mountain snowpack well below normal.

“The Klamath Basin faces one of the most difficult water years in recent memory,” Brown said in a press release. “Moving forward, we must look at long-term solutions to the underlying issue in Klamath and many other Oregon counties: there is too little water in the ground, and as the climate changes we are experiencing hotter, drier summers.”

Related: Cascade snowpack more vulnerable to climate change than inland neighbors, study says

Drought has become more common in this part of Southern Oregon in recent decades, which has caused tension among water users.

Precipitation this winter has been too little to make up for dry soils left by last year’s drought. The ongoing trend of drought on drought on drought could make this year the worst in some time.

Mark Johnson, deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said inflows to Klamath Lake are the lowest they’ve been since the 1930s (which history buffs will recall as the era of the Dust Bowl). The lake itself is starting the spring about a foot lower than it was last year at this time.


“We’re going to be looking at any assistance available to get people through this year, especially coming off of a drought last year. The ground is just that much drier,” Johnson said. “It’s just compounding the need for more water.”

Irrigators in the Klamath Project, which supplies water to hundreds of thousands of farmed acres in the region, could receive less than a quarter of the water this year than they have historically.

The ill effects of drought reach far beyond irrigated fields to endangered salmon and suckerfish, migratory birds at the Klamath wildlife refuges, upland forestry, and more.

“It affects all aspects of the watershed,” said Bill Lehman, executive director of the Klamath Watershed Partnership. Water quantity affects water quality, and less water typically isn’t good.

“When you have multiple drought years on top of one another or back-to-back, your soil conditions, everything is dry. Your water table is lowered. All of those water quality concerns get worse.”

The Klamath County Commission declared a drought emergency in early March. The governor’s order frees up additional state resources to assist the county throughout the summer.

Johnson praised the governor for signing the emergency declaration quickly.

Johnson and Lehman both added that stakeholder groups including the Klamath Tribes (which hold water rights in the basin from time immemorial), irrigators, nonprofits and government agencies are working together to develop solutions to endure this drought year and also to find compromise for the future.

“We have to consider all of the water savings options that are available to us,” Lehman said.

Most other Oregon basins are at or above normal snowpack levels as winter gives way to spring. Still, nearly 80% of the state is experiencing some degree of drought.