Volume XV | Issue 2 | Fall 2015
August 2015: Extremely low water levels have exposed old tree stumps and stranded boat docks at Detroit Lake (east of Salem). INSET: In 2008, the lake was near capacity (Photo: Kelli Brown).

A desperate water-supply situation

When times are dry, rural residents often get hit the hardest

Holders of junior water rights in Douglas County know the routine well: When the yellow postcards from the watermaster get delivered, they have to shut off their irrigation water. The water-use regulation happens regularly to protect senior rights, but this year the unpleasant news came extra early and covered a bigger area.

“We had to regulate water users much earlier in the summer, one-and-a-half to two months ahead of normal years,” says Douglas County Watermaster Dave Williams. “And we are regulating on streams that haven’t been regulated in 10 to 15 years, including the North Umpqua River. “

It’s just one small sign of this region’s very big problem: a severe drought that shows no sign of easing. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has declared drought emergencies for Douglas County and 23 other counties (as of September). In California, Siskiyou County is one of 27 counties in a drought emergency.

The situation

The National Resources Conservation Service reports that Oregon’s snowpack this winter peaked at the lowest levels measured in the last 35 years. Snow melted much earlier than usual — up to three months early in some parts of the state. That means late-summer water is not coming down from the mountains to replenish streams. 

“Streams across the state are breaking historic lows on a daily basis,” says Alyssa Mucken, program coordinator for the Oregon Water Resources Department’s Integrated Water Resources Strategy. “Managers are relying heavily on stored water releases, more so than an average year. Hot weather in June, for example, placed a stronger demand on storage from reservoirs.”

Although precipitation since October 1 has been normal to near normal in many areas of the region, it came in the winter. Finally, warmer-than-average temperatures made the situation even more dire.

“What we are seeing is a constellation of events that are trending toward a desperate water-supply situation,” Williams says. 

The impact 

When times are dry, rural residents often get hit the hardest. Towns using smaller, community water systems relying on tributary streams are easily influenced by a lack of rainfall or snow. Rural areas are also more likely to see a higher percentage of individual wells or springs, which are often the only source of water for residents.

Agriculture, an economic pillar of rural Oregon, is heavily dependent on the availability of water. “In many places, irrigation districts are key players, making real-time decisions about how to stretch water supplies throughout the summer season,” Mucken says. “A drought, such as the one we’re experiencing, can mean reduced water deliveries to farmers.” 

Low flows can pose challenges for fish. Recreation and tourism also take a hit in drought years, with low lake and river levels deterring prospective visitors. And drought conditions fuel wildfires.

What to do

This year’s drought looks like it is not going away anytime soon, and there are many steps, large and small, that can help mitigate its effects. At the local level, community water systems should be prepared for dry conditions later on this year, including identifying back-up water supplies. Water conservation programs can be established. 

Groundwater also can be impacted by drought, so well users should conserve water.  In addition, well owners should make sure their pumps are lowered and maintained to reduce the likelihood of an interruption in supply.

At the state level, Mucken says agencies are now at work outlining areas and issues to update Integrated Water Resources Strategy, due in 2017.  The current plan contains more than 40 recommended actions for achieving the state’s water-related objectives, many of which support better response mechanisms to drought conditions.  

For instance, Mucken says, the strategy recommends expanding the state’s network of stream flow and groundwater monitoring sites, and adding real-time monitoring capabilities. It also provides funding for collaborative water resources planning efforts at the local level.

 “This year’s drought has shined a spotlight on the need for better drought planning at all levels,” Mucken says. “Oregon can expect to see new drought resources and tools in the next iteration of the strategy.”   

Photo credits (top of article): Detroit Lake, dry, 2015: Nora Vitz Harrison. Inset photo of Detroit Lake (2008): Kelli Brown.
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