Reservoirs in and around Baker County have shrunken to comparative puddles, mute evidence to the severity of the drought that has persisted into autumn.
Yet when we look at the steep, dusty shores that were under water last spring we imagine how different things would be if the reservoirs didn’t exist.
Most particularly we wonder how much less productive the area’s farms and ranches would have been without reservoir water to irrigate their crops.
Certainly it would have been difficult, and for some farmers impossible, to raise water-intensive crops such as potatoes and alfalfa.
Residents who remember the era before Mason Dam was built across the Powder River in 1968, creating Phillips Reservoir, no doubt recall that the river all but dried up by the time it reached Baker Valley.
A similar situation prevailed in the Burnt River Valley before Unity Dam was built in 1938, and along the lower Powder River prior to the construction of Thief Valley Dam in 1932.
More recently, Wolf Creek (1974) and Pilcher Creek (1983) dams west of North Powder have supplied water to the North Powder Valley.
These and other reservoirs have transformed the former boom and bust cycles of spring flood and summer drought into a more reliable source of water throughout the season.
This has contributed to agriculture remaining one of the most important drivers of the county’s, and region’s economy.
We sometimes take for granted the water distribution system. But a summer like the one that just ended reminds us that the efforts that built dams in decades past continue to yield dividends to the county’s residents.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.