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‘We’re just trying to survive at the moment’: Oregon agricultural sector hit hard by severe drought

UPDATED: Sat., June 19, 2021

By Kale Williams The Oregonian

PORTLAND – From the Columbia River in the north to the Klamath Basin that straddles the California border, Oregon is well short of the water it needs.

Boat ramps have been closed due to low levels in some reservoirs, snowpack in many parts of the Cascades is far below average for this time of year and, in many places, temperatures are forecast to crest near 100 degrees.

Among those hardest hit by the drought gripping Oregon and much of the American West are those who plant, grow and harvest the crops that feed the country and keep our economy moving. The lack of water is forcing farmers to leave swaths of land empty while they watch revenue plummet, even as they scramble to better use available water and revive traditional agricultural approaches used before modern irrigation practices.

Wade Flegel has owned a farm near Prineville since the mid-1990s, but his family has been growing crops in central Oregon for more than 100 years. In normal years, he plants alfalfa, grass seed, hay and carrot seed on his 700 acres, as well as raising beef cattle.

This year, with water for irrigation in short supply, Flegel is planting crops on less than half the land he owns.

“We’re just trying to survive at the moment,” said Flegel, adding that the financial hit will likely be substantial. “Until all is said and done, we don’t know where we’re going to wind up, but we could see a 40% decrease from what we normally project.”

Climate change has shifted the dynamic in western states with water shortages increasing wildfire risk and low river flows imperiling already endangered fish species. Years like 2021, where there simply isn’t enough water to go around, are expected to happen more frequently, experts say, and those who depend on the diminishing resource, once thought of as a given, will have to contend with a future where nothing is guaranteed.

Any time resources are short, the potential for conflict rises, and Oregon’s drought is no different. Earlier this year, two farmers bought a piece of land alongside the irrigation floodgates in Klamath Falls, at the heart of the hardest-hit region of the state. With ties to far-right groups, the farmers have threatened to release water themselves after the federal government said there wasn’t enough for irrigation.

Climate change strains equation

In Oregon, water generally comes in two forms: rain and snow.

The western regions of the state, the coast and Willamette Valley, rely on plentiful rainfall to meet their water needs. The Cascades, which run like a spine up the middle of the state, block most of that rain from reaching the high desert east of the mountains.

But the peaks of the Cascades collect that moisture in snowpacks, which serve as frozen reservoirs, slowly distributing that much needed water throughout the spring and summer through snowmelt. In the Columbia River Basin, snowmelt accounts for about a quarter of the water available for irrigation.

As the climate warms, though, that crucial snowpack is dwindling. Between 1982 and 2017, snow fell later, melted earlier and contained less water on all of Oregon’s mountains, according to the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

On the eastern slopes of the central Cascades near Mt. Jefferson, snowpack measurements fell by roughly 70% during that 36-year period and, by the end of the century, the frozen reservoirs that feed the rivers in the Willamette Valley could decline by as much as 94%, according to Bill Jaeger, a professor of applied economics at Oregon State University who has spent decades studying the state’s water issues.

Even as climate models predict that Oregon will receive more rain on a yearly basis, there will still be less water to go around, said Erica Fleishman, director of the climate research institute. That’s partly because, when water comes as rain instead of snow, it does nothing to bolster the state’s snowpack. But, she said, warming temperatures bring increased evaporation as well, so the water that does come won’t stretch as far as it did under a cooler climate.

On top of that, crops grown in warmer temperatures require more water, Jaeger said, “straining the supply and demand equation of water from both sides.”

A region-wide crisis

Oregon is far from the only place experiencing an exceptionally dry year.

Across the American West, nearly 90% of land is considered to be in some form of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. More than a quarter of that area – mostly concentrated in the Southwest – is experiencing “exceptional drought,” the monitor’s most dire designation. All told, more than 58 million people live in areas of drought in the western U.S.

Recently, Nevada’s Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, fell to its lowest levels since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s. In Utah, one city stopped issuing building permits for projects that would require tapping into the city’s water supply. In Healdsburg, north of San Francisco, city officials have banned the use of sprinklers and drip irrigation, telling residents they needed to limit their water use to 74 gallons a day. Violations are punishable by fines of up to $1,000.

That conditions are worse elsewhere provides little comfort to those who rely on water in Oregon.

Jeremy FiveCrows, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said Indigenous people up and down the river have relied on fishing for millennia and are waiting nervously to see what kind of salmon returns the paltry snowpack will support later in the year.

If there’s not enough water coming down the Columbia, salmon returning from the ocean may not make it to their natural spawning grounds upriver. If the flow is too low, that could raise water temperatures, which can prove fatal to the endangered fish.

“Our biggest worry is for the natural spawning areas. The fish may not be able to get there because of low flow in the river,” he said. “The ones that do make it up will find conditions that might be too poor for offspring to survive.”

Other fish in the salmon family, such as trout and freshwater whitefish, could be kept out of spawning areas by high temperatures as well, FiveCrows said.

“When the river is over 72 degrees for more than 24 hours, mortality starts to skyrocket,” he said. “They run the risk of being poached in the river and not by fishermen.”

Flegel, who farms outside of Prineville, gets his water from the Ochoco Reservoir, which is fed from snowpack in the Ochoco and Cascade mountains. As of Thursday, the snowpack in the Deschutes and Crooked river basins was just 4% of normal and the reservoir sat at just 20% capacity.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Flegel, who compared the current water shortage to a three-year period in the mid-’90s when all irrigation water was cut off while dam repairs were made. “This is right up there with that.”

In the Rogue River Basin, snowpack is also just 4% of historical averages for this time of year. Kathy Keesee, program coordinator for Unete, an organization that advocates for farmworkers in southern Oregon, said the region has been hit by a “perfect storm” of last year’s wildfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and, this year, a drought that is hitting agriculture hard.

Keesee said it’s unclear when the harvest season will be and how long it will last.

“The lack of work for farmworkers is a huge concern,” she said, noting that many farmworkers and their families, who are mostly Latino, are still living in motels or other temporary housing after wildfires destroyed more than 2,000 homes in the area.

“Everyone has already spent down their savings,” Keesee said. “They usually work all summer to build savings and then that will carry them through, but they did not have a chance to build that up.”

Arguably the worst-hit part of the state is the Klamath River Basin, where snowpack stood at just 17% of normal as of Thursday, a slight rebound from last week when it was at 0%. The water shortage there is so dire that the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that controls water in Upper Klamath Lake, said earlier this year it would be releasing no water for irrigation for the first time in more than 100 years.

That prompted two farmers, Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen, who argue they have a legal right to the water stored in the lake, to purchase land directly adjacent to the headgates used to release water into an irrigation canal. With support from far-right groups in the area, Knoll and Nielsen have threatened to breach the headgates themselves, similar to a confrontation that happened in 2001 when federal agencies also declined to release any water, before relenting and releasing a small amount.

While the threats from Knoll and Nielsen have garnered national attention, few farmers who rely on water from the canal support their tactics.

Seeking solutions

Droughts like the one gripping the American West this year are likely to become more severe and happen more frequently as concentrations of heat-trapping carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere.

“Changes in drought, in terms of frequency and duration, are tied to changes in climate,” said Fleishman, the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, noting that the future of water use will have to encompass larger policy issues like population growth and density, along with agriculture.

“This isn’t a one-time thing, and there are no straightforward answers” she said. “It’s not as simple as watering your lawn one day less a week.”

While long-term, systemic fixes are complex, some smaller-scale solutions are decidedly less so.

Farmer Flegel said the Ochoco Irrigation District, of which he is president, is looking to increase efficiency in irrigation canals and decrease water loss to evaporation. Farmers in Klamath County are planting less water-intensive crops. Some farmers in other parts of the state are looking at ways to recharge depleted groundwater reserves in wet years to get them through droughts.

Others are using traditional techniques used long before irrigated farming was developed. At Moondog’s Farm in Lane County, Shelley Bowerman and her partner Dan Schuler have been growing greens, kale, herbs and other market produce for the past five years.

Their land sits on the Mohawk River and they’ve been able to pull the water as they’ve needed it. But the couple only grows irrigated crops on half of their 4-acre plot. The other half is dedicated to dry-farmed crops including fruit trees, tomatoes and winter squash.

In dry farming, crops are germinated using natural rainfall in the spring and then left to their own devices, their roots growing down into the soil and chasing the moisture stored there as the water table drops. This type of agriculture doesn’t necessarily produce high yields, Bowerman said, but offers a number of other benefits.

“You don’t get as much poundage because there’s not as much water weight, but you do get highly concentrated flavors, which are more marketable,” she said, adding that she and Schuler are hoping to convert more of their land to dry farming as the impacts of climate change continue to become more stark.

“We’ve designed and grown our farm around the concept of resiliency,” she said. “In the long run, we want to be creating a legacy that can survive without us.”

Legacy is top of mind for Flegel, too, as he considers what the future of farming looks like in Oregon.

“We have our three boys farming with us and they want to raise their kids in the same environment we raised them in,” he said. “It’s not like farmers haven’t gone through issues before. We just have to work harder and persevere.”

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