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Can a wet spring offset a dry winter and help Hood River County avoid DROUGHT?

June 25, 2005

Despite late spring wet weather that brought moisture to the parched Hood River Valley over the past couple of months, drought conditions still remain a threat.

“Basically, the rain kind of postponed the crisis,” said Steve Castagnoli, Hood River County extension agent. “I say crisis — we don’t know it’s going to be a crisis but based on existing snowpack, if we have a typical dry, hot summer, we could have some very serious water shortages.”

Low elevation snowpack “is pretty much gone,” Castagnoli said, and middle and higher elevation snowpack is at a fraction of normal. A monitoring station at the 5,400-foot level on Mount Hood shows snowpack at about 33 percent of average, according to Castagnoli.

Fruit growers in the valley could begin feeling the effects of the water shortage soon. Farmer’s Irrigation District, which serves 1,400 customers, is “very close to implementing some conservation practices,” according to district manager Jerry Bryan. Farmers’ customers holding junior water rights (meaning younger, and therefore “inferior”) could have water from Farmers cut off completely. Many of those orchardists also hold senior water rights, according to Bryan, which will help them get through the season. For those who hold only junior water rights, “it’s a pretty big deal,” Bryan said.

“We’re certainly striving to get all the water we possibly can, including in particular to those junior water rights holders,” Bryan said. Most of them are cherry growers, he added, whose harvests are well under way.

“The other thing we’ll do as flows continue to drop — and all it takes is one or two hot days and the stream flows begin to plummet — is we will put people in the district on (water) rotation, so they’ll have approximately three days on and four days off,” Bryan said.

Despite the late season rain, this year has the potential for serious drought conditions due to a sort of “perfect storm” of parameters: little wintertime precipitation, low snowpack and no groundwater recharge.

“Unlike other drought years when we’ve had just one of the three parameters lacking, this year we’re lacking all three,” Bryan said.

The granddaddy of drought years, the one to which all other droughts in recent memory are compared, occurred in 1977 when major conservation measures were enforced around the Northwest. After that, the most recent serious drought year was 2001.

Castagnoli says this year’s conditions will probably wind up in the record books somewhere between the droughts of 1977 and 2001.

“This year was shaping up to be near to ’77,” he said, “but with the spring rain, things have improved a little.”

Dave Compton, district manager for Middle Fork Irrigation District, said the late spring rain helped fill Laurance Lake, which provides water to the 420 Middle Fork patrons. But he’s nervous about how things will look by August and September.

“All you have to do is look up at the mountain and see how much bare ground is showing,” he said. “That’s our bank account up there.” Compton said some Middle Fork patrons are taking advantage of the district’s program that pays for replacement nozzles and gaskets on watering lines to help eliminate waste. District officials also have worked with several orchardists to fix leaky valves, Compton said.

At this point, most orchardists seem to be taking the drought threat in stride. Tim Annala, who has 41 acres of cherries, apples and pears near Oak Grove, said he’s not too worried about it yet.

“No one knows how bad it’s going to be,” he said. “We’ll probably run real short late in the season. It could affect fruit size, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Still, Castagnoli and Anne Saxby, district manager for the Hood River Soil and Water Conservation District, are urging city residents to be conscientious about their water usage.

“We want folks to be aware of how they use water, and to the greatest extent possible minimize use this summer,” Saxby said. “People in town tend to feel that since they’re paying for it, there’s an unlimited supply. But all they have to do is drive by the rivers and see how low they are. The reality is there’s no snowpack on the mountain and we’re going to be hard pressed to keep our fruit trees watered this summer.”

Castagnoli agreed that city residents can “play a vital role.”

“They can certainly use water more efficiently,” he said. “And if conditions become extreme, one of the things they should consider is not watering their lawns.”

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