Think Out Loud

Despite rainy weather in parts of the state, Central Oregon remains in extreme drought

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Jan. 13, 2023 5:15 p.m. Updated: Jan. 20, 2023 5:41 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Jan. 13

Winter in Oregon signals rain and snowpack which may help dry conditions in some parts of the state. Still, Central Oregon continues to face extreme drought. How will the relentlessly dry conditions affect the region? We check in with Larry O’Neill, Oregon’s state climatologist, and Eric Klann, a longtime engineer for the city of Prineville.

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Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Winter weather in Oregon usually means two things: rain and snowpack. But despite the wet weather in many parts of the state, Central Oregon continues to face extreme drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Crook County is under severe drought conditions, meaning increased fire risks, decreased hay yields and less water available for wildlife and waterfowl. For more on this ongoing drought and how this could look going into the future, we turn to Oregon’s state climatologist, Larry O’Neill and to Eric Klann, the founder of Divergent Engineering Services and the longtime city engineer for Prineville. Welcome to Think Out Loud to both of you.

Larry O’Neill: Thank you.

Eric Klann: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Larry O’Neill, first. I wanna start with the big picture. Can you give us a sense for just how bad the drought in Oregon is right now?

O’Neill: Essentially in Central Oregon the drought conditions that we’ve experienced in the last three years, which started in October 2019, have – by a number of different measures – been one of the worst in the state’s recorded history. This includes all of Eastern, Central and Southern Oregon, so within Crook and Deschutes County down to Klamath and big swaths of Eastern Oregon as well.

Miller: Can you begin to give us a sense for the repercussions for this drought? Because there are a lot of different ways to think about it. Water is central to basically every aspect of our environmental and economic and social lives. So what are the different ways that the impacts are being felt?

O’Neill: Basically every year of a multiyear drought, the impacts become more severe on each consecutive year. We’re seeing this in basically reservoir levels. A number of different reservoirs in Eastern and Central Oregon are at their lowest levels ever. So we just don’t have very much carryover from one year to the next of water in those reservoirs. What that means practically is there’s much less irrigation water available for agriculture and livestock operations during the summer, and there’s reduced water supply in the streams and rivers and other water bodies during the summer when we need that the most. There’s increased fire risk, and the water supply is just more unreliable. So it’s more difficult and challenging to plan for how much water you’ll have available for you in the summer or in the early fall when we need it the most.

Miller: Eric Klann, what’s unique, or at least special, about the water situation and drought conditions in Prineville?

Klann: Well, as Larry was saying, Central Oregon is just the epicenter for this drought. If you look at any maps, the D4 drought is right in Prineville. D4 is the most exceptional drought. Pretty much, that little dot just covers Crook County, so we’re the worst of the worst. It is dry. It’s been dry for quite a while. We’re starting to see a little bit of snow, but our soil moisture levels are just off the charts dry. So it’s gonna take a while to wet things up. But yes, as you mentioned, starting to impact our local agricultural community. [inaudible] a small farmer, we received about a third of our normal duty last year. If not for a good snowpack, it’s going to be that much tougher next year.

Miller: Can you explain how the geology of Prineville affects this and how it’s different than areas that aren’t that far away, say, in parts of Deschutes County?

Klann: Yeah. Redmond, Bend, not very far away as the crow flies – maybe 18 miles to Redmond, 30 to Bend – but they’re in what we call the Deschutes regional aquifer. It’s just a big cracked basalt aquifer. If you look at the Cascades, the east side of the Cascades where we’re at, take Mount Bachelor, the Three Sisters, you don’t see many rivers flowing off of them as you do on the other side of the Cascades, so the majority of that water just goes into the aquifer, into that Deschutes regional aquifer, and works its way down to the north to Lake Billy Chinook. Prineville and Crook County, on the other hand, our geology is much much older. As rocks get old, they turn to clays and become impermeable. So water’s historically been much more difficult to find in Prineville as compared to some of our neighboring communities and more expensive historically.

Miller: You’ve either worked for or with the city for a number of years now, going back almost 20 years. What have city officials done in response to this? Because even if it’s extreme now, it’s not exactly new. What efforts have you already undertaken?

Klann: Historically, Prineville’s had a tough time with water. I came on board with the city in 2007. Prior to that, in 2006, they actually ran out of water and had to do a reverse 911. There was a lot of residential growth at the time. The first hot peak came during the spring. That’s usually when our peak demand is earlier in the season. Some of their wells failed, so they had to do a reverse 911.

Miller: What does reverse 911 mean?

Klann: Reverse 911 is where your phone rings, and it’s 911. It tells you, ‘We’re running out of water. You need to limit your use.’ So, me for instance: At the time, I was a plant engineer for a large manufacturing facility here in Prineville. I was luckily able to shut off city water and go over to some of our wells that we had to limit that demand. The city, trying to grow that resource, went in and constructed three wells, and unfortunately all three wells failed. One of the wells, they just had a hard time constructing it, it caved in. Another one hit a lot of sulfur. And then they drilled a very large, deep well – that was in close proximity to some productive wells – that was just dry.

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When I came on board with the city in the fall of 2007, our public works director and myself just spent a lot of time looking at the geology and really trying to understand the opportunities that we have and that eventually led to, after years and years of study, our aquifer storage and recovery project, where we store water during the winter when water is plentiful and use it during the summer when demands are tighter.

Miller: Even so, what do the projections look like right now, given the likelihood of a warmer climate and, if it’s a slightly wetter one, it’s not going to be in the form of as much snow, meaning less surface water when we need it. The water is likely to just run off. What does that mean for the local water supply?

Klann: It’s going to be detrimental. Warmer and wetter is not better for Central Oregon or better for Crook County in particular. We’re very much set up for the snow to come, the snowpack to hold up in the mountains, and then as it warms up, we get the warm rains during the spring that flushes down to our reservoirs and we hold it. If that moisture comes as rain, we don’t get the big inflows and it really just slowly works its way into the ground, not necessarily recharging the aquifer because the formations are so much older. So really for us, it’s an impact to recreational activities. It’s important to note that Prineville Reservoir, on a good year, on a normal year, is the third most visited reservoir in the state. But really for our agricultural community in Crook County, we have Ochoco Irrigation District, which I’m a patron of. That’s 20,000 acres of productive farmland and it just makes it really tough to grow any crops when we’re so limited on supply.

Miller: Larry O’Neill, what should we be doing as a state to prepare for these bigger swings in precipitation, both more intense rain flows or surface water flows and also perhaps longer periods of drought?

O’Neill: That’s a great question because the reliability is really a key factor in our water supply. If we have an unreliable water supply, it doesn’t matter how much we get over a long period of time. If we can’t rely on it to meet our needs at specific times then that’s when we get these really adverse impacts…

Miller: Like California is seeing right now.

O’Neill: That’s exactly right. There are a number of different ideas that are being proposed to basically create a more resilient water supply. One of those that’s being tested right now in a couple of reservoirs in California is what’s called the Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations. It’s essentially taking our reservoir operations, which principally operate on two mandates: flood control and water supply, and trying to adjust how much water we can keep during the winter – let it go a little bit up into our flood pool or in our emergency storage and try to adjust that based off weather forecasts. If we know a big storm is coming, then maybe we can let a little bit of water out or something like that so that we can capture more of the water during that storm.

Other ideas that have been proposed [include] groundwater injection – injecting excess surface water during wet periods into the groundwater that we can store for future use in well-water supplies and things like that. But the final thing is that we need to actually rethink some of our water uses throughout the state and just be prepared for a future where we have more of an unreliable water supply.

Miller: When you say, ‘rethink our water uses’ that sounds like a careful, and maybe politically safe, way to say think about ways to use less water. And immediately my mind goes to agriculture since it uses so much water. Is one potential solution, that you’re talking about, to limit increases in agriculture?

O’Neill: That is possible, and really it’s regionally dependent. Some regions are growing very fast, and there’s becoming more conflict over water uses. So Bend and Redmond area is a good example where there’s some growth in municipal water use from the growing city, but there’s also a lot of established agricultural and livestock production interests in the area that’ve been there for a long time. So there’s a balance there and some conflict over this unreliable water supply that we’re seeing there. Yeah, there needs to be more debate about – and potential solutions brought forth for – these regionally specific water use issues to prepare for it. It’s not necessarily going to be easy, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every area.

Miller: Eric, Larry was talking about some Deschutes County cities there. Deschutes County has grown the fastest in the state in the last, well since 2010 or I think even going back further than that, but Crook County is the second-fastest growing county in the state. So you’re dealing with a ton of growth as well. Is this growth sustainable, given everything we’ve just been talking about?

Klann: I would say, yes, for the city of Prineville. We’ve done a lot of due diligence and grown our infrastructure in a very, I would say, fiscally responsible and environmentally friendly way. We have our aquifer storage and recovery project that really allows us to manage our water system with much less impact on the environment. Once we use that water, we send it to our Crooked River Wetlands Complex where we let nature clean the wastewater, and we get it right back into the river, cold and clean, which has been just fantastic for the recent steelhead reintroduction and salmonid reintroduction. So in our community of Prineville we have some great solutions.

One of my biggest concerns is some of the development out into the county where people are on exempt wells. I don’t think we have a great understanding of how those wells are going to respond to this complete prolonged drought. I watch our water levels very closely. I have transducers in our wells that are monitoring water levels every five minutes year round, so I can see the seasonal changes. Our water levels are holding in quite strong – very, very well – but there’s a lot of area out there.

For Crook County and Central Oregon, the biggest issue is juniper. Juniper is just killing our watershed and exacerbates the issue we have with the ongoing drought. I think that’s something that we can proactively get behind as a society. If we get after the juniper, it just makes a massive improvement to the watershed very, very quickly. In Prineville and Crook County we’ve done a lot of studies with Oregon State [University] on the impact of juniper. Juniper’s 10 times more now than pre-European days. We have over 600,000 acres of juniper in Crook County, and one acre of juniper will consume 100,000 gallons of water a year. If I look at one of our residences in Prineville, they use less than that. We worry about the growing population, but then you look at just the massive amount of juniper out there which is a much bigger impact on the watershed.

Miller: Eric Klann and Larry O’Neill, thanks very much.

O’Neill: Thank you.

Klann: Thank you.

Miller: Eric Klann is a longtime city engineer of Prineville. Larry O’Neill, associate professor at OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and state climatologist.

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