A drought state of emergency blankets more than half of Oregon’s land area, according to declarations from Gov. Kate Brown. This week, the governor added four more counties east of the Cascades to the list of places facing severe water shortages.

Executive orders warn that extreme conditions are likely to hurt local growers and livestock, increase the potential for fire, shorten the growing season, and decrease water supplies. The emergency declarations allow people who use water to seek temporary relief measures, such as moving water rights, drilling emergency wells and applying for state and federal aid.

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A farmer checks for carrot seeds in his hands on dry day in Central Oregon.

In this file photo, Phil Fine checks for carrot seeds in the dusty soil left behind by a combine while harvesting a field in the North Unit Irrigation District in August 2021 near Madras, Ore. That area is in Jefferson County, one of the counties currently under an emergency drought declaration.

Nathan Howard / AP

Since March, the governor has declared drought emergencies in 11 Oregon counties covering more than 53,000 square miles. This week Deschutes, Grant, Lake and Malheur joined Crook, Gilliam, Harney, Jackson, Jefferson, Klamath and Morrow counties.

In Deschutes County, this marks the first time drought has been declared three years in a row, according to the Central Oregon Irrigation District, or COID, the largest water user group in the region. The district is a public body that diverts water from the Deschutes River to canals feeding over 4,000 accounts. This includes the region’s most senior water rights, which means some people with COID accounts take priority when there isn’t enough water to go around.

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COID’s primacy over water rights fuels tension with environmental advocates, and with farmers downriver in Jefferson County who are part of North Unit Irrigation District. That group is entitled to less water than COID, even as its users grow and sell many more commercial crops.

COID Managing Director Craig Horrell said the drought declaration makes it possible for the districts to work together.

“Without the declaration, those tools aren’t even a possibility,” he said.

One tool, Horrell explained, could be temporarily transferring water rights between districts. Past efforts at sharing have failed.

“I think the caveat is: Will [the districts] be able to deliver water at the time that a person wants it?” he said.

Recent snowstorms helped the drought outlook, but Horrell is still expecting water supplies in the Deschutes Basin will shrink by mid-July.

Cities in Central Oregon — Bend, Redmond and Prineville — are a small fraction of where the region’s water goes. The lion’s share, or about 40% of the Deschutes River Basin water use, goes to COID. Cumulatively, there are eight irrigation districts in Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes counties. Together they pull 95% of the Deschutes Basin’s total water use, according to a recent city of Bend analysis.

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