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March 30, 2005

Drought meeting assesses problems

By Scott Maben 
The Register-Guard

SALEM - Even as a downpour pummeled the roof of a Salem Public Library lecture hall and threatened to drown out a couple of speakers, a parade of water users described how Oregon will suffer from drought this year.

Farmers, commercial fishing interests, utility managers, conservation groups and others outlined looming problems and offered suggestions for ways that state and federal agencies could ease the pain.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., convened the Drought Preparedness Forum to help officials assess how bad it could get, from irrigation shortages to poor conditions for migrating salmon to elevated wildfire danger.

"I think we should ... hope for the best and prepare for the worst," Wyden said.

Recent storms have dumped rain in the Willamette Valley and snow in the mountains, but the wet spell has made only a dent in the drought.

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Sen. Ron Wyden said Tuesday at his forum on the drought: "We should ... hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

Photo: Don Ryan / The Associated Press


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Statewide, the snowpack is 29 percent of average, up four percentage points since the cool, wet weather returned. That doesn't begin to make up for one of the driest winters on record, said Stephen Todd, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Portland.

Much of the state has received less than half of the normal precipitation since Oct. 1, and snowpacks remain among the scantest ever, Todd said. More than half of the streams in Oregon flowed at record low levels on March 18, he added.

Even an especially wet spring would not avert a water shortage, especially for counties east of the Cascades that rely on snowmelt for agriculture and healthy fisheries.

"If we did have rains that brought us up to normal, we'd probably have flooding problems," Todd said.

Sherman Reese, a dryland wheat grower from Pendleton, said farmers in his area have seen less than 30 percent of the normal rainfall, while reservoirs are well below levels needed to irrigate crops. Reese said he expects to lose 75 percent of his yield this year.

"We'll be looking for drought assistance on a national scale," he said.

If farmers reduce how much they plant this year, that could hurt donations of surplus and off-grade produce such as onions and potatoes for the Oregon Food Bank, said Steve Randolph, agency relations manager for the organization.

Wyden jumped in to say, "There's no question in my mind that drought can translate into more hunger."

Several panelists said that the low water year underscores a shortage of reservoirs for irrigation.

"We need more (water) storage in this state," said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association.

Others cautioned against sounding the drought alarm too loudly.

"Too much hype in the system" might deter people from buying nursery plants, said Bob Terry, who is on the executive committee of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

Low streamflows also will hammer recreation-based businesses, Detroit Mayor Connie LaMont said.

LaMont criticized federal officials for increasing the discharge through Detroit Dam recently to help the endangered Oregon chub in the North Santiam River. That water should be held back to help fill the reservoir and support businesses that count on summer tourism, she said.

"Why isn't our reservoir having its best chance to fill?" she said.

Later in the forum, representatives of conservation groups said that every year brings drought for Oregon fish stocks because so much water has been allocated to irrigation and other uses.

Reduced hydropower production this year may force utilities to buy more expensive power on the open market, said Randy Berggren, general manager of the Eugene Water & Electric Board.

Before the recent rains, water available for EWEB's McKenzie River hydro projects was 40 percent of normal. If the utility must turn to the market for power, "We will see rates go up more," Berggren said.

The state Office of Emergency Management's Drought Council, which also met Tuesday in Salem, recommended that Gov. Ted Kulongoski declare drought emergencies in six more counties: Crook, Gilliam, Hood River, Morrow, Sherman and Umatilla.

Kulongoski already has declared emergencies in Klamath and Baker counties.

The Drought Council held off recommending that the governor declare a statewide drought emergency but will consider it again next month, said Barry Norris, an engineer for the state Water Resources Department.





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