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As a Central Oregon county struggles with extreme drought conditions, officials declare an emergency

A U.S. Drought Monitor map showing drought conditions across Oregon on Jan. 12, 2023. Crook County is the only one in "exceptional drought" conditions.
Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor
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A U.S. Drought Monitor map showing drought conditions across Oregon on Jan. 12, 2023. Crook County is the only one in "exceptional drought" conditions.

While much of Oregon has received rain the past few weeks, certain parts of the state are still struggling with worsening drought conditions.

The Crook County Court declared a drought emergency in a Thursday meeting, asking Gov. Tina Kotek to declare her own emergency and make disaster relief funds available.

It’s the fourth consecutive year that Crook County has declared a drought, but Commissioner Brian Barney said the situation is getting worse. Crook County, located in the heart of Central Oregon, is the only county in the state experiencing “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“We haven’t had the recharge of the reservoirs,” Barney said. “Each year, they’ve gone down a little bit more.”

State Climatologist Larry O’Neill told OPB’s Think Out Loud on Friday that Central Oregon’s drought conditions are one of the worst in the state’s recorded history.

“Every year of a multi-year drought, the effects become more severe,” O’Neill said.

Listen to the full conversation with O’Neill below:

The Ochoco and Prineville reservoirs remain far below capacity, each around 10% full. The Ochoco Irrigation District wrote a letter to Crook County stating that its reservoir has reached a record low in 2023 with less than 16,000 acre feet of water.

The irrigation district also said farmers relying on the water are having to leave up to 50% of their fields fallow due to the lack of water, and that low water levels are leading to an increase in algae and moss that has to be removed chemically.

Crook County farmers are mostly known for producing large amounts of hay.

“There is a potential for the Crook County agricultural, natural resources, recreational, tourism and related economies to experience another year of widespread damage from the extreme weather conditions in the county,” the district wrote.

The declaration, if approved by the governor’s office, would allow farmers to apply for federal grants and programs that can offset losses brought on by the drought. Last year, Crook County was among the first of many counties in the state to receive a drought declaration from the governor’s office.

Early snowpack numbers in the region are promising. As of Friday, the Upper Deschutes Basin had around 106% of its median snowpack, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Still, Barney said it will likely take years of steady rain and snowfall for conditions in the county to return to normal.

Other parts of Oregon are seeing a stronger water year, with snowpack in parts of Southern and Eastern Oregon hovering between 110% and 180%.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Joni Land