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Jefferson County is included in list of drought-affected counties. North Unit explains effects of declaration.

DESIREE BERGSTROM/MADRAS PIONEER - A panel of six Central Oregon representatives presented during a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture and the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, to discuss irrigation and water needs in the region Sept. 26. The panel included Martin Richards, chairman of the NUID board, far right, and beside him, Mike Britton, NUID manager.Gov. Kate Brown has declared a drought in seven counties, including Jefferson County, due to hot, dry conditions and unusually low water supply.

The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners sent a letter requesting the designation to the chairmen of the state's Drought Readiness Council on June 3. They described the current conditions as "severe and devastating."

Brown signed an executive order Wednesday, July 1.

"Forecasted water supply conditions are not expected to improve, and drought is likely to have significant impacts on the farm, forest, recreation, drinking water, and natural resources sectors, as well as impacts on fish and wildlife and other natural resources which are dependent on adequate precipitation and streamflow in these areas," Brown wrote. "Extreme conditions have already affected local growers and increased the potential for fire, a loss of economic stability, shortened growing season, and decreased water supply."

Mike Britton, North Unit Irrigation District's general manager, supported the county's request for the declaration.

"The drought has a significant effect on farmers in light of a water allocation season last year that caused farmers to fallow ground, and, as you know, the May 30 storm caused significant damage to crops and irrigation equipment, among other things," he said in an email interview Monday, July 6. "Like last year, many farmers are having to leave fields fallow in order to use what little water they have on the crops that make the most sense. NUID allocated even less water to our farmers this year than it did last year. This year, NUID farmers with Deschutes water rights were allocated 1.25 acre-feet per acre, and farmers with Crooked River water rights were allocated 0.60 acre-feet per acre, as compared to 1.50 and .75, respectively, in 2019. These levels of allocation have not been seen since the early 1990s. Further yet, should these types of water years continue, the sustainability of the Jefferson County farming community could be compromised. Farmers, much like any other business, simply can't survive when faced with having to significantly reduce their production year after year."

In some cases, Britton said, the drought declaration can give irrigators access to emergency water supplies or transfers. And it may let farmers use crop insurance. The Department of Water Resources can approve emergency water use permits and temporary drought transfers. It can make other substitutions and allow for owners of water rights to create drought agreements, as well.

"Having said that, there is really limited help through a declaration given our type of water supplies, water rights, and geology," Britton said. "In short, there's a limited amount of surface water supplies that exist. A water right holder who is unable to use water due to the effects of drought, may apply for a temporary change in use, place of use, or point of diversion under a different water right held by the user. There aren't very many people in a position with multiple water rights to move around. And lastly, our geology makes it difficult to construct supplemental production level groundwater wells due to poor groundwater supplies and prohibitive costs of constructing them. The benefit of the declaration, among others, is that it sets the stage for folks should programs or opportunities present themselves as a result of the drought declaration versus finding out about a program or opportunity, then having to go through the drought declaration request process."

The governor's order tells the state Department of Agriculture to seek federal resources. It also directs the Oregon Water Resources Department and the Water Resources Commission "to coordinate and prove assistance to water users" in the affected counties.

The Water Resources Department must also consult with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on impacts of water availability on fish and wildlife.

The Office of Emergency Management will help with "assessment and mitigation activities to address current and projected conditions ..."

Other state agencies are required to help, as well.

Douglas, Gilliam, Josephine, Crook, Deschutes and Wasco counties are also included.

The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners cited "the potential for the Jefferson County agricultural and livestock, natural resources, recreational, tourism, and related economies to experience widespread and severe damage resulting from extreme weather conditions within the county" in their letter."

When asked what other steps the government could take to help, Britton said, "I think the government could take a look at current water law, particularly ways in which water could be more easily shared amongst water users in the basin – drought or no drought. At this point, it comes down to keeping folks whole and funding the losses resulting from the drought. ... At the end of the day, most farmers would rather farm than leave ground fallow and wait on possible assistance from the state or feds."

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