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Climate experts predict ‘tough times’ ahead as drought conditions continue

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Erik Neumann
/
JPR News
FILE: Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in October, after a year of exceptional drought.

Southern and Central Oregon are bearing the brunt of an extensive drought that could bring early wildfire and more water shortages this summer.

Despite this week’s heavy rainfall, most of Oregon is still in an ongoing drought with Central Oregon facing the most severe conditions in the state.

Climate experts from Oregon, Washington and Idaho shared an update on Thursday that shows about 74% of the Pacific Northwest is seeing drought conditions with 18% of the region experiencing exceptional drought. They predict the drought conditions this summer will be even worse than they were the last two years, in which the Northwest saw withering crops, dying fish and empty water wells.

Central Oregon could see its wildfire season start as early as May, they said, with water shortages that could impact farmers, crops and livestock.

In Oregon, at least 10 counties, from Sherman County down to Klamath County, are seeing exceptional drought conditions, which are creating water emergencies such as dried-up wells and water shortages in reservoirs and streams. Although the recent atmospheric river brought heavy rainfall across much of the region, the longer stretches with no rain have made drought conditions worse.

“Many of those areas impacted most by drought would need 150 to 200% or more of normal precipitation over the next two months to ameliorate drought conditions,” NOAA National Integrated Drought Information System Britt Parker said.

The likelihood of that happening is very low.

Oregon State University climatologist Larry O’Neill said the drought has been steady for the past two years, and each consecutive year the impacts have been greater. From October 2019 through September 2021, O’Neill said Oregon has experienced its third driest period on record going back to 1895.

Southern and Central Oregon have borne the brunt of the drought, O’Neill said, with at least seven counties seeing the lowest rainfall on record.

“This year, we’re actually starting off drier than we did at this point last year, and so right now we’re very worried about this region in Oregon,” he said.

Reservoirs are also at their lowest levels ever. O’Neill said nearly all reservoirs in the state are 10% to 30% lower than they were around this time last year. This could have impacts on how much water landowners are allowed to use for irrigation, which could hurt farmers and ranchers.

“We’re going into some tough times in Oregon for this summer,” O’Neill said.

The drier than normal spring also means high wildfire risk in Central Oregon.

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, which predicts which areas are facing the highest risk of wildfires, Central Oregon will have significant wildfire potential starting in May.

Eric Wise with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said the extremely dry conditions are worrisome because they could mean an early start to another very active fire season.

“We are concerned that things will get started early again this year and then just persist,” he said.

Across the West, a 22-year megadrought has brought the region to the driest conditions it’s seen in at least 1,200 years, and a study published last month concluded 42% of the extensive drought conditions can be attributed to human-caused climate change.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Monica Samayoa is a reporter with OPB’s Science & Environment unit. Before OPB, Monica was an on-call general assignment reporter at KQED in San Francisco. She also helped produce The California Report and KQED Newsroom. Monica holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts from San Francisco State University.