Drought threatens farms, tourism

June 07, 2001 12:00 am
The level of Wolf Creek Reservoir in April, right, was cause for concern for the areas ranch and farm families who need irrigation all summer. (Baker City Herald photograph by Kathy Orr).
The level of Wolf Creek Reservoir in April, right, was cause for concern for the areas ranch and farm families who need irrigation all summer. (Baker City Herald photograph by Kathy Orr).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Baker County commissioners heard some compelling reasons for officially issuing a drought declaration Wednesday but they also heard a few reasons why making a declaration may not be a good idea.

Agricultural producers would have access to federal programs under a drought declaration. However, there is concern the declaration could harm the countys tourism industry and drive down agricultural property values.

Under a drought declaration, the State Water Resources Board can issue emergency water use permits. To encourage flexibility among agriculture producers, water rights can be transferred during a drought.

Authorities can declare that humans and livestock will receive preferential treatment with water consumption over irrigation. The state board can also order state agencies, counties and cities to develop conservation plans.

A drought declaration could also make farmers and ranchers eligible for low-interest loans and grants. One hay support program pays up to 50 percent, according to county interim planner Mark Bennett.

Agriculture pumps $53 million annually into the county economy, Bennett said. Of that, $43 million comes from cattle operations.

Low levels in Phillips Reservoir (41 percent full, as of Wednesday) and Unity Reservoir (30 percent full) dont bode well for irrigation past early July, Baker County Watermaster Rick Lusk said.

Were looking at dry conditions throughout the basin, he said. Wolf and Pilcher Creek were both 48 percent of their capacity, and weve been drawing on those two reservoirs for two weeks now.

He said that area irrigation district managers have been very frugal as the drought has become more severe.

There are springs drying up now, Commissioner Howard Britton noted, that nobody can remember ever having dried up.

Since the beginning of the water year, Oct. 1, 2000, total precipitation at the Baker City Municipal Airport has been 5.49 inches. The long-term average for that period is 7.06 inches.

Since the start of 2001, total precipitation is 2.93 inches. Thats the fourth-lowest amount for the first five months of the year since at least 1943, the first year for which airport records are available.

The driest were 1950 and 1992, both with 2.49 inches from January through May. In 1997 the total for that period was 2.89 inches.

Dave Lukens, a fire management officer on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said the Palmer Drought Index shows monthly average rainfall levels in Northeast Oregon are almost as low as they were during the Dust Bowl days of the early 1930s, although the current drought is not nearly as sustained as that catastrophe.

It doesnt mean (2001) will be a bad fire year, he said. Weve got more fire engines in Baker County than we have in many years. But the large fuels in the forest are dry, so the table is definitely getting set.

Declaration carries risks

But a drought declaration also carries some risk, Bennett told commissioners. News of a drought can have a negative effect on summer tourism.

It sends out a negative message about our region, he said. Wed have to work closely with the Visitor and Convention Bureau and the Chamber to send out this message: Hey, were still open.

With the exception of Brownlee Reservoir, summer boating will be almost non-existent, whether or not the drought is declared, Bennett said.

And the possibility of closing off public access to national forest lands due to the fire danger could wreak havoc on hunters.

All of these would have a major effect on the amount of recreational dollars spent in the county, Bennett said.

The drought has led federal officials to take a wait and see attitude on summer grazing allotments, he said. Springs in higher elevations simply arent producing much water, a situation that could drive cattle to riparian areas. Ranchers may have no choice but feeding hay to their cattle, and hay prices are climbing fast.

A tax impact

County governments bottom line could suffer under a drought declaration, too.

Thats because Assessor Allen Phillips could re-assess the countys farmlands, driving down the countys assessed valuation by up to one percent.

One of the very best reasons to declare soon, Bennett said, is so that state and federal resources can be accessed relatively quickly.

We might want to get in early, before the dollars begin to dry up, he said. Traditionally its in the communitys best interest to declare early. The real down side is trying to play catch-up.

Britton and County Commission Chairman Brian Cole decided to consider a possible declaration during their next commission meeting June 20.

In the commissioners vote to declare a drought, the declaration would have to be approved by Gov. John Kitzhaber and, ultimately, President Bushs Agriculture Secretary, Ann Veneman, before it would take effect.