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Preparing for next drought and its health impact

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Crook County health leaders survey residents to learn more about effects of drought and how to minimize them

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Water levels at Prineville Reservoir plummeted during the summer of 2015, prompting early closure to motorized boating.

Thanks to a heavy snowpack and continued rain during the spring, local reservoirs are filling and irrigators expect plenty of water for this growing season.

However, the Crook County Health Department is not ruling out the possibility of drought-like conditions in the near future and is preparing to deal with days when water is scarce.

"According to emergency management for Crook County, we continue to stay in a drought-ready state, because we could go back into drought at any time," said Vicky Ryan, the health department's emergency preparedness coordinator.

The health department conducted a community-wide random survey this past Tuesday and Wednesday, asking local residents about the impact of the drought the community experienced during the past few years. The survey asked people for personal impact as well as the economic, agricultural and commercial impact.

The survey, known as the Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) was made possible by a grant that Crook County received following their drought declaration in 2015. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Oregon Health Authority partnered to help the county administer the survey.

Ryan points out that Crook County conducted only the third CASPER in Oregon history. Volunteers went door to door conducting surveys and will compile analysis of the gathered information. Community partners will then meet to receive a report on the findings of the survey.

The report is intended to help local leaders understand the health-related risks associated with drought as well as how to better help the county prepare for any emergency or disaster. The information is going to be used by both the Health Department Emergency Preparedness and the county emergency manager to inform the county on challenges surrounding groundwater, livestock, clean drinking water, hardships on community members, recreation and health.

The idea to study drought and its impact on the community health emerged a few years ago, but Ryan said this is the first time somebody in her position has had the time and resources to address it.

Ryan points out that when most people think about drought impact, personal or community health is not typically considered. However, lower water in the reservoirs can result in more of an algae bloom and give rise to swimmer's itch.

"There can be some pretty severe health risks just swimming in the water," she said. "It also adds to more stagnant water, which brings more mosquitos."

Less water also increases the likelihood of wildfires, the smoke from which creates a major health risk for people with chronic lung problems or asthma.

The county will likely address drought challenges with an awareness campaign, Ryan said, which is intended to make citizens more aware of the health risks associated with drier years. Local leaders may also provide information to help people face the changes a diminished water supply can cause.

"These are the types of vegetables you can grow that use less water," she offered as an example. "These are the types of plants you can grow that use less water."