News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Sisters Country faces ongoing drought

Oh to be 50 miles north. That’s all the farther you would have to go to cross the line into normal. In terms of snowpack, that is. The Hood, Sandy, and Lower Deschutes water basin is at 99 percent of normal snowpack with two of their nine stations at 104 percent.

Not so when you measure the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins, where Sisters lies: 82 percent total with one station at 70 percent and six others of the 14 stations under 80 percent. Closest to home it is deceiving, with Three Creeks Meadows reporting at 89 percent and Santiam Junction (think Hoodoo) at 84 percent.

But snowpack isn’t as important as snow-water equivalent. That’s really distressing. And it’s only March with nothing of consequence in the forecast, short or long-range. Deschutes Basin Watermaster Jeremy Giffin said, “We’re 71 percent of average on our snowpack.”

The SNOTEL automated measurements last week showed the Upper Deschutes-Crooked River Basin snow-water equivalent nearly 30 percent below normal.

“At this point last year,” Giffin said, “we had an above-average snowpack. But a dry spring led to irrigation districts shutting off in the middle of summer, and it could happen again. We’re going to be very tight on irrigation water this summer.”

That does not bode well for fire season either, which experts say will start as early as May this year in the Deschutes National Forest, according to their Public Affairs Specialist Jaimie Olle.

Everybody is trying to get ahead of the danger posed by the low water and high dry conditions coming our way. The wildfire that broke out near Boulder, Colorado, is an ominous warning of an early fire season.

In next week’s Nugget we will report on the mitigation measures being taken by CEC (Central Electric Cooperative).

Apart from fire risk, the consequences of the low snow pack and water content therein, will be the effect on fishing and water recreation. Low streamflows will make for poor angling. And low water levels will make kayaking and canoeing problematic in some usually favorite locations on the Metolius, Breitenbush, and McKenzie rivers.

There could be an economic impact on tourism in Sisters as boaters and fisher folk stay home or travel to more desirable locations. Interestingly, with record high gas prices Sisters stands to benefit from tourists who will travel shorter distances this summer as fuel prices eat into their budget.

Whitewater raft operators on the McKenzie and Santiam have expressed worry that they will not have enough water to continue into August, a usually busy time. Fishing guides are equally concerned. Tom Holloway gets $500 for a full day on the McKenzie and $375 for a half day.

“I’m already getting regulars asking if they can move up their dates from summer to spring,” he said. “We’ll be dragging bottom by the end of July I’m thinking now.”

Earlier campfire restrictions are bound to be put into place. If past is prologue, expect Oregon State Parks and Forest Service campgrounds to severely limit or outright ban campfires as a preventative measure as early as June. It’s going to be just that dry and risky, managers predict, and that will dampen enthusiasm for long-standing family traditions.

Drought to megadrought

Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced the first drought emergency declaration of the year last Monday, in this case for Klamath County. Brown said that this first declaration comes almost a month earlier than last year. The declaration means that the state expects low snowpack, reservoir levels and streamflow have caused or will cause natural and economic disaster conditions in the rural county. Expect more such declarations by the governor in the coming weeks for other counties.

Deschutes County commissioners have declared a drought — or has the first time ever that’s happened three years in a row. Twice previously the county had back-to-back droughts, in 1991-1992 and 2001-2002.

A telling sign are area reservoir levels that are at depressing levels, as shown in the accompanying graph. More dramatic is the drought-level image from the U.S. Drought Monitor showing nearly all of Deschutes County in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought conditions.

Oregon is part of the western U.S. megadrought that worsened so much last year that it is now the driest in at least 1,200 years and is a worst-case climate change scenario playing out live, a new study finds.

2021, now in the rearview mirror, was virtually as dry as 2002 and one of the driest years ever recorded for the region, pushing the 22-year drought past the previous record-holder for megadroughts in the late 1500s. And it shows no signs of easing in the near future, according to a February study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“We have seven counties in Oregon that have experienced their lowest precipitation amount on record,” said Oregon State Climatologist Larry O’Neil in a media briefing last week discussing the severity of drought across the region.

Notwithstanding the over-estimated atmospheric river of two weeks ago, prompting winter rain in some areas, 74 percent of the Pacific Northwest is still enduring some degree of drought, with 18.6 percent listed under extreme or exceptional conditions.

“So for the last two water years, which span the period from October 2019 to September 2021, Oregon has experienced its third driest period on record going back to 1895. This year, we’re actually starting off drier than we did at this point last year,” O’Neil said.


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