In the community

Severe drought hitting Malheur County

Drought conditions can be seen across most of the county, including at Keeney Pass. (Les Zaitz/The Enterprise)

VALE – For 13 years, Vale rancher Toby McBride has relied on a spring to supply his cattle with water during the dry, hot summer months. But this year, that spring dried up. 

There’s so little water available on his pastures that McBride has resorted to digging into the spring to force water up, something he never expected he’d have to do. 

Sixty-two percent of Malheur County is experiencing severe drought conditions with another 25 percent in moderate drought, according to a recent report from the National Drought Mitigation Center. The other 13 percent of the county is abnormally dry. 

Reservoir operators in the county said there’s enough water to supply farmers and ranchers on irrigated land through summer. Ranchers who graze their cattle on non-irrigated public land, however, are already struggling to find healthy grass and water sources. The hottest days of the summer are yet to come. 

“We’re moving cows around constantly to keep them spread out enough,” McBride said. “We’ve moved cows more this year than any other year I can remember. By every second or third day, we’ve hit every field.” 

Harper rancher Tad Amick said springs that typically have water in them are dried up on his grazing land, too. 

He said the distance his cattle have to travel to find drinking water and decent grass takes a toll on the cows. 

“It’s going to reduce the size of the calves,” Amick said. 

Luckily, Amick’s neighbors have allowed him to pump water to his cattle from their well. Amick said that’s the only reason he hasn’t had to start hauling water to his cows.

“It’s not fun,” Amick said.

McBride said he’s having more difficulty finding adequate grazing land this year than during the record-breaking 2015 drought. By July 2015, 99 percent of the county was in extreme drought, according to federal records.

Pockets in a region can vary from the overall drought status because the classifications are based on data from multiple sources such as stream flow, precipitation, and anecdotal accounts, according to Britt Parker, the regional drought information coordinator for the Pacific Northwest. That’s why conditions on McBride’s ranch might be worse this year than three years ago when the drought then was classified as more severe.

Water in streams and ponds that McBride’s cattle used in previous years is as low as it has ever been, he said. Unlike Amick, McBride has started hauling water to his cows.

But that’s not the worst of his concerns.

“The thing I worry about most is that the more you’re out here moving cows around, the more likely you are to start a fire,” McBride said. Dried rangelands can be ignited by as little as a car engine starting. “We’re at the point now where we have to be out here.”

The current drought conditions have made rangeland vegetation highly susceptible to fire.

The federal Bureau of Land Management monitors vegetation on rangelands throughout the county to assess fire risk. Drier vegetation makes fires burn hotter and faster. Jason Simmons, assistant fire manager with the Vale district BLM, explained that a percentage scale is used to measure moisture saturation. The scale goes up to 300 percent.

“Below 120 percent saturated is a problem, but if it goes below 100 percent, it’s really bad,” Simmons said.

On July 9, the sagebrush around the Keeney Pass monitoring site six miles south of Vale was at 70 percent saturation, according to the U.S. Forest Service National Fuel Moisture Database.

Saturation levels that low leave the region vulnerable to fast-moving fires that are difficult to contain, Simmons said.

Although these drought conditions have caught the attention of fire officials and ranchers are dealing with the effects, the county has yet to officially declare a drought.

Lt. Rich Harriman, emergency services director for the county, said Friday the county is “exploring the possibility” of declaring a drought.

“A lot of the public lands are dry. The dryness has put us in a bad situation,” said Harriman.

He said local reservoirs will probably hold enough water to get through the irrigation season but unless a lot of snow falls in the winter, the county could face a drought situation much earlier in 2019.

Harriman said the process to declare a drought is straightforward. After he collects enough information to determine a drought declaration is needed, he forwards that data to the Malheur County Court. 

The court then would declare an emergency and ask Gov. Kate Brown to designate the county a drought area.

The governor has already declared a drought emergency in Baker, Harney, Grant, Klamath, Lake and Douglas counties.

Max Egener: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.