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Extreme Drought Hits Farmers Hard In Central Oregon County

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Much of the western U.S. is experiencing severe drought. The region is being hit with record heat, which has led to extremely dry conditions and has depleted already scarce water reserves in some areas. Oregon is one of the states experiencing this historic drought. And with little rain and a fast melting snowpack, the state is preparing for what's expected to be a very busy wildfire season. Joining us to discuss how all of this is affecting his community is Phil Chang. He is a county commissioner for Deschutes County. That's in the central part of Oregon, and he works on water issues for the county.

Welcome to the program.

PHIL CHANG: Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: This severe drought is affecting much of the western U.S., as we've said. Can you just briefly describe what conditions are like where you are right now and where your water reserves stand?

CHANG: We've had a couple of dry years. And then we had an OK snowpack this winter but - an OK precipitation. But with the couple of dry years that we've had in the past, our groundwater levels are lower, the soil moisture is low. And so a lot of the snow which melted off early, just kind of disappeared into the ground and didn't come back out as spring. So our river levels and our stream levels are very low. And as a result, we - our reservoir levels, the stored water for agriculture is also very low.

MCCAMMON: There have been reports of some residents' wells in the West drying up and others about farmers having to limit the amount of crops they plant because of a lack of water availability. What are you hearing from people there in central Oregon?

CHANG: There are several irrigation districts. And there are many farmers within those irrigation districts who are really suffering from the lack of water availability this year and this drought year. So, for example, Wickiup Reservoir, which is one of the largest water storage reservoirs for irrigation here in the Deschutes Basin - this time of year, on a good year or, you know, on a typical year, there might be a 150,000 acre feet of water in the reservoir. But this year, there are - this year, today, there is less than 50,000 acre feet of water in there. So it's 24% full at the beginning of summer. And that is a really bad situation for our farmers.

MCCAMMON: So am I getting this right, less than a third of the water you'd normally have for that purpose at this time of year?

CHANG: Yes, yeah. And so the farmers who are dependent on that water in the North Unit Irrigation District, which is actually outside of Deschutes County in the next county north - they are fallowing acres. They are having to, you know, sacrifice certain crops. They are going to have a very hard year this year.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, which just means - which means less income - right? - at the end of the year.

CHANG: Absolutely, yeah. And kind of in the grand scheme of the upper Deschutes River Basin, those are the farmers in North Unit Irrigation District who do the most highly valuable and most commercial crops.

MCCAMMON: You know that this isn't the first time your county has faced difficult conditions when it comes to water shortages. The U.S. Drought Monitor says more than 65% of Deschutes County is in extreme drought. How does this compare to what you've seen in the past?

CHANG: We have had extreme drought years that - one of the challenges, again, is that this year is coming after a couple of dry years. So there's a cumulative impact. We went into - you know, again, we had a decent snowpack, and we had decent precipitation this year. But the ground was incredibly dry. Groundwater levels were low. And so as that snow melted off, the water disappeared into the ground and didn't come back out.

I do think that we will - with climate change, I do expect that we will see more years like this moving forward, where the snow melts off very early and we may not get the full snowpack that we would get in a historic average year. And so we need to be prepared for more droughts like this and maybe more severe droughts moving forward.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, what does that look like? I mean, how do you try to make sure this isn't the new normal?

CHANG: Well, one of the great things about this river basin, the Upper Deschutes River Basin, is that there is actually quite a lot of water. We allocated a massive amount of it, you know, at the - in the late 19th century, early 20th century to agriculture. But that means that there are huge opportunities for conservation, so we can modernize our irrigation infrastructure so that there's adequate flow for fish and wildlife and for the huge recreational use of our river here in our community.

MCCAMMON: If that's possible, why isn't it happening already? What's the missing piece?

CHANG: We're working within a 19th century water rights - you know, water rights system. The laws that allocated water to, originally, mostly to agriculture in this basin were written a very long time ago. And at that time, the goal of the federal government and the state government was to settle the western United States, not to think about, you know, how much water you needed in rivers for fish and wildlife, not thinking about, you know, growing metropolitan areas across the western United States. So there's - the system is built in a - the water rights system is built in a way that it doesn't necessarily encourage those conservation efforts. And so we need - you know, we've needed 21st century kind of pressures to get us to start moving in that direction.

MCCAMMON: And finally, your area is at a high risk of wildfires as well. That's another concern in part because of forests and population density. What is your level of concern? How prepared do you feel you are for the upcoming fire season?

CHANG: There has been a lot of what's called fuels reduction work and forest restoration work done that helps us - helps our forests be more resilient when the fire comes and helps protect our communities. Now, that said, even though we've done some of this work, there's still a lot more to do. And what people need to understand also is that in a dry fire-adapted ecosystem like this, when the winds, the temperatures and the humidity are, you know, severe, there is really very little you can do to stop a fire. I mean, you know, on a super hot, super dry, super windy day, really, the best that firefighters can do is sort of herd the fire a little bit. But they really have very little ability to stop a fire in those conditions.

MCCAMMON: That's Phil Chang, county commissioner for Deschutes County in Oregon. Commissioner Chang, thank you for your time.

CHANG: Thank you, Sarah. It was nice talking to you today.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEAMBEATS BY HARRIS HELLER'S "DARK MATTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.