County officials have asked the State of Oregon to declare a drought emergency

by: LON AUSTIN - Clark Woodward (LEFT) and instructor Rick Kramer look at a core sample of snow taken from the Ochoco Meadows SNOTEL site.  The CTE Natural Resource Management Program at Crook County High School accompanied Ochoco Irrigation District manager Mike Kasberger to the site Tuesday morning to check snow depths.

Five days after Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a drought emergency in Klamath, Lake, Harney, and Malheur counties, Crook County asked to be added to the list.

In a letter dated Feb. 19, the Crook County Court stated that “Crook County agriculture and livestock industries, and related economy are suffering widespread and severe economic damage, potential injuries and loss of property resulting from extreme weather conditions.”

As of Feb. 20, Michael Ryan, emergency manager for Crook County, indicated that the Ochoco Meadows Snowtel monitoring site measured a snowpack of 21 inches, equating to 6.1 inches of water.

“There is no real snow pack to count on to fill these lakes,” he said, referring to Ochoco and Prineville Reservoirs.

“We are definitely concerned and in a position where levels in the reservoirs are low,” said Ochoco Irrigation District Manager Mike Kasberger. “We would be more comfortable with them being higher.”

The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) manages snow telemetry (SNOTEL) monitoring sites throughout Oregon, providing snowpack water content and snow depth data along with all-season precipitation accumulation and air temperature statistics.

Located in remote, high-elevation, mountain watersheds, SNOTEL sites operate unattended and without maintenance for a year or longer, powered by solar-cell-charged batteries.

According to Kasberger, who manages the Ochoco Meadows site on behalf of NRCS, the Ochoco Reservoir is currently at 38 percent of normal, holding an estimated 17,200 acre-feet of water.

“Ochoco is our critical water supply,” said Kasberger, “and, it fills only four out of every 10 years.”

The Prineville Reservoir is faring a bit better, filled to 70-percent of normal at 105,384 acre-feet.

An acre foot of reservoir capacity is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.

The county court’s letter to the state estimates local demand at 40,000 acres of irrigated soil, saying that “100-percent of those irrigated waters will receive reduced allocations.”

Some might think that recent weather events, including the significant snowfall received during the weekend of Feb. 8, would go a long way towards alleviating the drought.

Kasberger, for one, was certainly happy to get the snow, saying that, as a result, inflows had gone from “almost nothing to pretty good.”

Unfortunately, the impact was negligible on drought conditions.

“As far as coming back to normal water levels,” said Kasberger, “It doesn’t look like that is going to happen at Ochoco.”

Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkely agreed.

"Even though the state has seen snow and rain during the last week, Oregon is still experiencing a terrible drought, especially in southern and eastern Oregon," said Merkley. "We need to start preparing now because water shortages are nearly inevitable. Today’s (Feb. 14) declaration by the governor will allow counties greater flexibility in how water is managed and is a necessary step for what is looking like a rough year ahead."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recognized the problem as well, having recently announced $6 million in grants to help localities address agricultural water problems.

“These grants will help arm America’s farmers and ranchers with the tools and strategies they need to adapt and succeed, and build on ongoing, cross-governmental efforts to provide relief to those impacted by severe drought,” he said.

Federal and state assistance is just what Crook County is seeking, admitting that a proper response to the drought is “beyond the capabilities of Crook County.”

Despite it all, Kasberger tries to remain optimistic.

“I hesitate (to admit to drought) because of the weather. Conditions are certainly moist outside giving us inflows that are better than they have been all winter,” he said, “But, the snowpack is not there.”

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