Phillips Reservoir

Phillips Reservoir is holding about 16% of its water capacity following a mainly dry summer.

Baker County commissioners will meet Wednesday morning to discuss whether to approve a drought disaster declaration for the county, where rainfall has been below average every month this year.

Commissioners meet at 9 o’clock at the Courthouse, 1995 Third St. Due to occupancy limits, residents are urged to attend the meeting remotely via a link on the county’s website at Participants can also join by phone by calling 1-408-418-9388 and entering this meeting ID — 1467232108 — and the password “meeting1”

The declaration would ask Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to declare a drought emergency in Baker County. That would, among other things, give the Oregon Water Resources Department more flexibility in allowing farmers and ranchers to use available water, said Jason Yencopal, the county’s emergency management director.

So far in 2020 the governor has declared drought emergencies in 14 of Oregon’s 36 counties. During the past decade, Baker County commissioners approved drought declarations in 2018, 2015, 2014 and 2013. Annual rainfall was below average in three of those years, 2015 being slightly above average.

County Commissioner Mark Bennett, who owns a ranch in the southern part of the county southeast of Unity, said county officials have been monitoring conditions through the spring and summer.

Although some reservoirs are still holding water, farm land and grazing pastures that don’t have rights to stored water are extremely dry, Bennett said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor Index shows most of the county in “moderate” drought, with fringes on the western, eastern and northern parts of the county rated as “abnormally dry.”

The index includes four levels of drought, of increasing severity — “moderate,” “severe,” “extreme” and “exceptional.”

The National Weather Service’s rain gauge at the Baker City Airport has collected 2.99 inches of precipitation during 2020.

That’s less than half the average of 6.91 inches from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31.

Rainfall has been well below average in every month except May, when the total was 1.11 inches, compared with an average of 1.43 inches.

May is statistically the wettest month of the year at the airport.

Wes Morgan, who manages the Burnt River Irrigation District in southern Baker County, said Unity Reservoir, the lone source of stored water in the district, has been “in pretty good shape.”

“I’ve been able to deliver the water needed,” Morgan said Monday.

On Monday the reservoir held about 9,200 acre-feet of water, about 37% of its capacity. The current volume is slightly less than at the end of August in 2019, but more than at the same time in 2018 (5,438 acre-feet), 2017 (8,304), 2016 (5,492), 2015 (5,705) and 2014 (4,947).

The situation is similar at Phillips Reservoir, in the Sumpter Valley about 17 miles southwest of Baker City.

The reservoir is impounding about 11,800 acre-feet of water, 16% of capacity.

A year ago at this time, Phillips Reservoir was holding 21,759 acre-feet.

But this year’s volume, although scarcely half what it was a year ago, exceeds the amount at the end of August in 2018 (9,665 acre-feet), 2016 (5,219) and 2015 (5,385).

The one exception in that period was 2017, when the reservoir, flush with water from the heavy snowpack of the previous winter, held 39,349 acre-feet of water at the end of August.

(One acre-feet of water would cover 1 acre of flat ground to a depth of 1 foot.)

Thief Valley Reservoir, just across the Union County border east of North Powder, is holding more water than it has at the start of September since 2011.

The reservoir’s volume of 3,264 acre-feet is 25% of capacity.

The reservoir emptied before the end of August in 2018, 2016 and 2015.

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