Water dilemmas – Mitigating Oregon’s continuing drought

October 2021 Posted in Community, Other

By Melissa Wagoner

It can be difficult to remember, as the fall rains roll into the Willamette Valley, that the area is still experiencing a severe and widespread drought.

“This is the second year of an extensive drought so it’s double bad,” Jan Lee, Executive Director of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts – an organization representing 45 conservation districts throughout the state – confirmed. “One of the problems is record low water levels.”

Decreased rain, diminished snowpack, lower than normal river levels – are all symptoms that are easy to see and easy to track. But what’s not so readily apparent is what lies beneath the surface.

“In some areas community water systems and domestic wells are drying up,” Lee said.  “70 percent of Oregon’s agriculture is going to be impacted due to water shortage.”

Seventy percent is a lot but with 54.5 percent of Oregon at an “extreme and exceptional” level of drought – up from only 8.3 percent in 2020 – it shouldn’t be surprising that farmers and ranchers are feeling the burn.

“In eastern Oregon it’s hay and wheat,” Lee said, referencing how the drought is affecting that side of the state where, between lower pasture yields, reduced irrigation capacity and skyrocketing hay prices, farmers and ranchers are being forced to make very tough choices. 

“There’s a big sell-off of cattle right now…” Lee confirmed. “Even in Yamhill County, where it isn’t so bad, it’s affecting them.”

For the past several years, in California, where the drought took hold first, growers have been letting some fields lie fallow, owing to a lack of irrigation. Now some farmers in Oregon are following suit.

“There are some places that’s happening now, even in the Valley,” Lee confirmed. “People are not planting as many acres as they did in the past. Even Christmas trees are affected.”

These consequences come as no surprise to Anna Rankin – Executive Director of the Pudding River Watershed Council – who, when asked about the current drought, began with a familiar quote from Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Where there’s water on earth, you
find life…”

“[This] is a common truism said by biology professors,” Rankin said. She has worked for the council since 2014. “I took that to heart so, here I am; working in a water-related field.”

It’s an important job, especially now, when issues relating to water quality and riparian and wetland habitat for fish and wildlife are often in competition with the needs of humans.

“Forests, crops, rangeland, fisheries, recreation, private wells, and people are all being significantly impacted,” agreed Bryn Hudson, Water Policy Analyst and Legislative Coordinator for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “Longer term, this highlights the challenges ahead, and that we need to increase Oregonians’ preparedness and resiliency to drought and we need to invest in adapting to climate change.”

This, according to Hudson, can be done. But it will require robust data collection, informed decision-making and an investment in infrastructure-based solutions by federal, state and local governments. Because both aging and poorly functioning infrastructure, especially pertaining to water loss and misuse, can be a major part of the problem.

Even in Silverton, where estimated municipal leakage is 17.4 percent – only 7.4 percent above the target loss amount – leakage is considered an issue of importance.

“That’s water you’re paying to treat and to pump that’s going into the ground,” City Engineer Bart Stepp said at a recent work session by the Silverton City Council. 

Which is why leakage detection, along with a new water plant and the recycling of backwash water, were all top priorities in the plan Stepp presented to the council.

“It would almost act as an additional water source,” he said of the effect these changes could have on the city’s overall water usage. 

That’s a good thing. Because, while winter rains are coming, they are not here. And the water curtailment, enacted by the City of Silverton on Aug. 5, is still in effect.

Which is why Lee’s advice to all Oregonians is one word – prepare. 

“Because it’s probably not going to be a lot better,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by Hudson.

“We can all do our part to lessen the effects of limited water supplies this summer,” she began. “We can start by conserving the water we use today.

“The OWRD has a page specifically directed toward saving water inside the home, outside the home, and on the farm or ranch. Some of these recommendations include periodically testing and checking for leaks and broken pipes, reducing outdoor irrigation, and being strategic about water use, such as avoiding washing partial loads of dishes/laundry, turning off water when brushing teeth, and shortening showers.”  

The alternative, according to Rankin, is a frightening one. 

“My ancestors survived the Dust Bowl in North Texas in the 1930s,” she began. “I mention the Dust Bowl because it feels like history is repeating itself. If you take an east-west route across the Pudding Watershed at 4 p.m., you’ll see plenty of brown, crispy crops. In the afternoons, tractors crossing fields stir dust into the lower atmosphere.”

But she, too, is not without hope. 

“From that era, we got the national Soil Conservation Service and today’s iterations of it,” she noted.

“I think we have more tools now and more education so we know not to destroy the soil,” Lee agreed. 

“I think there is a greater awareness of the need to invest in water management, planning, data and studies,” Hudson said. 

“We have more work to do, but this last session we really saw an increased interest around water and an understanding that there has been insufficient funding.  We need to continue to invest in water in order for Oregonians to thrive now and into the future.”

Ways to Conserve  Water at Home

• Turn off taps when not actively using – examples are brushing teeth and washing dishes.

• Purchase water-efficient appliances.

• Never use water to defrost foods.

• Check for leaks – one small leak can waste an incredible amount of water and do a lot of damage!

• Insulate pipes – it prevents freezing and helps heat water faster.

• Wash only full loads of laundry or dishes.

• Take shorter showers and use low-flow shower heads.

• Refrigerate a pitcher of water to eliminate running the cold tap.

• Harvest rainwater for irrigation.

• Know where the main water valve is to your house – this will reduce damage and water waste in an emergency.

• Clean gutters, driveways and sidewalks with a broom or by hand, not with a hose.

• Mulch your garden and flower beds to retain moisture.

• Use a dual-flush toilet and faucet aerators.

• Use a car wash instead of the hose.

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