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Where's the rain?
By Jayson Jacoby
This year the gravel road might be the most useful tool for measuring the weather.
Better than the rain gauge, anyway.
That instrument has had about as much work as a fisherman in the desert.
To get a sense for how dry 2013 has been in Baker County, drive a few miles on an unpaved road.
Rather than hearing the hollow thud of mud smacking into your wheelwells, a faithful sound of spring, you’ll see in your rear view mirror the gritty contrail more typical of summer.
As of today, the total precipitation for the year at the Baker City Airport is 1.93 inches.
That’s barely more than half of average for the January-through-April period, which is 3.29 inches.
And with little chance of rain over the next week, we might be stuck at 1.93 inches into May.
“We’re looking at some of the driest conditions for this time of year since 2000,” said Rick Lusk, Baker County watermaster.
Lusk said farmers and ranchers have started drawing irrigation water from several streams that flow through Baker Valley, including Rock Creek, much earlier than usual.
“We’re a month ahead,” Lusk said Tuesday.
Andrew Umpleby, who works for the Powder Valley Water Control District in the North Powder area, echoed Lusk’s comments.
“People are having to irrigate way earlier than usual,” Umpleby said.
As a result, he said he has had to divert snowmelt from the Elkhorn Mountains into irrigation ditches rather than into the district’s reservoirs, Pilcher Creek and Wolf Creek.
Weather records from the airport date to 1943, and since then just five years have been more parched than 2013 at this point, with almost one-third of the calendar pages flipped over.
The most recent of these was 2007, a year that Umpleby said was similar to 2013 in terms of early irrigation.
The rainfall total for the first four months of 2007 was 1.67 inches.
Despite current conditions, Lusk said it’s too early to deem 2013 a severe drought.
Statistically speaking, the wettest months are still to come.
May is the soggiest, with an average rainfall of 1.46 inches, and June ranks second at 1.31 inches.
“I like to be an optimist, and there’s still so much that can happen,” Lusk said. “We have all of May and June to come.”
If history is any guide, though — a questionable premise as regards weather — years that start dry tend to stay that way.
Of those five years with more desiccated beginnings than 2013, four ended up with below-average precipitation for the entire year.
2007, for instance, was on pace to be the second-driest year on record until November.
Both that month and December were wetter than usual, but even so the year’s total of 7.08 inches ranked as the third-driest, trailing only 2002 (5.63 inches) and 1949 (7 inches).
The yearly average is 10.17 inches.
Also on the positive side of the ledger is the mountain snowpack.
The water content at a few sites is actually above average, including Moss Springs on the west side of the Wallowa Mountains near Cove.
The situation is less promising in parts of the Elkhorns, though.
A measuring site near Bourne, for instance, part of the Cracker Creek/Powder River drainage, recorded a water content of just 60 percent of average today.
Ultimately, as is usually the case, the next two months will likely define whether 2013 joins the ranks of historic droughts in Baker County.
For now, Lusk, though he’s not a farmer, feels a kinship with people who are.
“I live in the city,” he said. “But I’m thinking I’m going to have to water my lawn this weekend.”