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Drought is serious and getting worse

If you have visited Emigrant, Howard Prairie or Hyatt lakes lately, you know the water levels are dangerously low. That means farms, ranches and vineyards that depend on that water will have to cope with a very short irrigation season this year.

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It also means the fire season is likely to be longer — again — than it has been historically, because snowpacks and rainfall have been below normal for several years, and the unusually wet season needed to replenish reservoirs has not happened.

Jackson County commissioners have declared a drought disaster, following Klamath County, which took that action March 9. That allows the counties to ask Gov. Kate Brown to declare a drought emergency, which she did Wednesday for Klamath County.

The Drought Readiness Council, chaired by the Oregon Water Resources Department and Oregon Office of Emergency Management, reviews drought declaration requests from local governments and makes recommendations to the governor.

Jackson County has received nine drought declarations in the past 30 years, but four of those have come during the past decade — in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2020. That’s an indication that dry years are becoming more frequent.

Once the governor issues a declaration, it frees up money for assistance to local water users and allows the Water Resources Department to speed up review processes and reduce fee schedules.

Those are helpful, but they do little to address the long-term consequences of continuing drought.

One step that would address that need is the WISE project — Water for Irrigation, Streams and the Economy — a multi-year effort to pipe and pressurize open irrigation canals that lose tremendous amounts of water to leakage and evaporation every year. The obstacle, of course, is paying for it. The cost was estimated at $300 million to $400 million in 2015, but it’s likely more now. Still, it’s a small price to pay to save an estimated 30% of the water now being used to irrigate 45,000 acres of productive farmland.

It can be difficult to generate widespread public support for drought-related projects in this area because residents of Medford, Central Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix and Talent enjoy an abundant supply of water from the Medford Water Commission thanks to Big Butte Springs, supplemented with water from the Rogue River. It’s hard to take talk of drought seriously when city dwellers are not being asked to conserve.

But the continuing drought is serious business for irrigators who depend on flows from reservoirs that now hold a fraction of the water they usually provide. It’s time to get serious about a long-term solution.