Drought worsens across county
Last updated 7/20/2021 at Noon
It does not take a hydrologist to know that Sisters is in the midst of a drought. By the numbers, 100 percent of Deschutes County is affected by the drought — all 157,733 persons. June was the 38th driest for that month in 127 years and the eighth-driest year to date since records began in 1894. On the Palmer Drought Severity index Sisters was at 93 — “severe.” It is expected to reach a level of between 95 and 98 within four weeks —identified as “extreme.”
Roughly a quarter of Deschutes County is already at the “D4 Exceptional Drought” level, the highest ranking on the Drought Monitor scale produced by University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the nation’s definitive source. The accompanying graphic tells the story convincingly.
Unless you are a farmer or rancher, your understanding of the drought is usually connected to the corresponding heat. For most of us, we turn on the water, and out it comes, with as much as we want. For boaters and lake fishers the drought is more obvious. Wickiup Reservoir, just south of Bend, is at its lowest level for this date in its 75-year history — just 14 percent of capacity.
Clear Lake, west of Sisters, is at 16 percent. Ochoco Reservoir is also at 14 percent. Prineville Reservoir by comparison looks healthy at 40 percent, but that is far less than its historical average for mid-July. By mid-August Madras and surrounds, the top crop-production area in Central Oregon, will be without water and losses to farmers and ranchers will be catastrophic, according to Deschutes Basin Watermaster Jeremy Griffin.
Ranchers are already selling off portions of their herds as they cannot afford rising hay prices caused by lack of water. Cattle prices are depressed as a result.
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife instituted “Hoot Owl” regulations for parts of the Deschutes River and all of the John Day River in an effort to preserve fish taking a beating from the warm waters and low stream flows. That means no fishing from 2 p.m. to one hour before sunrise.
Whychus Creek is running at around 26 cubic feet per second in keeping with its historical averages for mid-July. The Upper Deschutes water basin is at 81% of normal as a casual glance at our mountains show. Three Creeks Meadow has received 32 inches of precipitation year to date vs. its 40.1 average, although the lake is full, as is Suttle Lake and other popular nearby recreational pools that derive water from snow melt and/or ground water.
Groundwater tables are showing distress. One has to drill 301 feet on average to find water in Deschutes County today, approaching the 1994 maximum of 302.72 feet. We are in no danger of running out of water in Sisters, which is served by three deep wells and a 1.6-million-gallon reservoir. Roughly 2,900 of us use an average of 113 gallons per day. That doesn’t seem like much until you do the math. 327,700 gallons per day; 2,293,900 gallons per week; 9.8 to 10.2 million gallons per month.
Historical water abundance means taking water for granted which means less conservation efforts. Experts tell us the first place to start is with our lawns. Lawns don’t need to be watered every day, even during the summer. The fact is, if you water just once every three days, you promote deeper root growth, making your lawn healthier and more water-efficient.
Water evaporates quickly when the sun is out. So, if you water during the day, you’re not watering the lawn, you’re watering the sky. Instead, water in the early morning, evening or at night. It’ll keep the water where you want it: in your lawn.
Those whose full-time jobs are to track water are urging conservation at all levels. Hobby farmers and ranchers will be hurt the most — those with llamas, alpacas, goats, and pumpkins. Expect Halloween gourds to soar in price.
As of now, there is no relief in sight.