Malheur County issues drought emergency declaration in a bid to seek state aid

A recent drought declaration by the Malheur County Court is one step toward mitigating what is shaping up to be a dismal irrigation season for area ranchers and farmers. (The Enterprise/FILE).

VALE – Rob and Lacey Elder are two ranchers familiar with lean water years but 2022 is already shaping up to be exceptional in terms of the severity and long-term risk triggered by drought.

“We bought this place in 2012 and we had several dry years the first few years but this is the worst we’ve had so far,” said Kristi Elder.

Water holes on the Elder Ranch in Riverside are already dry. The level of water at the nearby Warm Spring Reservoir stands at 15% full.

Last year Lacey Elder said the ranch ran out of water in mid-August. That will happen much sooner this year, she said.

“Early June, if not sooner,” said Elder.

The Malheur County Court issued an emergency declaration because of drought April 6, forecasting “widespread and severe economic damage” because of the area’s drought conditions,” according to a county declaration of emergency.

The Malheur County Court asked Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state emergency as well to open the doors for state aid.

At stake is millions of dollars in sales from agriculture and livestock production and a series of climatic conditions that could dry out the high desert steppes of southeastern Oregon and create ideal conditions for range fires.

The county now is in severe to extreme drought conditions, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s drought information system.

The governor has already declared a drought emergency in 10 other counties. Malheur County could get state resources to deal with the water shortage.

The county declaration was sought by Lt. Rich Harriman, the county’s emergency services director.

The county wants the state to instruct the Oregon Water Resources Department to approve temporary transfers of water rights, emergency water use permits and the use of existing water rights options available locally.

A drought permit allows a user to replace water temporarily outside the existing water right. The most common drought permit allows an individual to use groundwater as a substitute for an existing water right.

A temporary transfer of water rights allows a user to modify the type of use, place or the area of a water diversion under the existing water right.

The county pointed to lack of snow and rainfall along with below average fuel moisture levels in vegetation as key reasons for the declaration.

A snow water equivalent of only 19% of normal for the Malheur Basin played a role in the drought declaration.

“In severe drought conditions, you can expect pastures are brown; hay yields are down and prices are up; producers are selling cattle. Fire risk increases. Marshes are drying up, little water is available for livestock and wildlife,” the declaration said.

The declaration also described the impact on the county’s ranching industry.

“Ranchers will have to truck water into their livestock,” the declaration said. “Livestock have to walk greater distances to get water and this contributes to exaggerated numbers of ‘dust pneumonia’ cases in calves.”

The court also declared a drought emergency in 2021.

The drought, coupled with low reservoir levels, will hit the local cattle industry hard, according to Chris Christensen, a Malheur County rancher who is a vice president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

 “It is already affecting feed prices. They’ve doubled and tripled in some places and hay prices are going through the roof,” said Christensen.

Pasture grass could also be in short supply.

“Depends where you are at but it will be a short grass year,” said Christensen.

The drought also affects alfalfa, which is typically a thirsty crop.

“Normally these guys out there cut three or four cuttings of hay. This year they are talking about getting maybe one. It’s really negative,” said Christensen.

Elder said her ranch will probably not hay their ground because of the lack of water.

“We will bank it and just have to end up buying more hay which will be a challenge and the price of that has skyrocketed,” said Elder.

Elder said worst case would be reducing the total number of cattle – now the Elders run more than 500 head on their property and on BLM grazing permits in the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur National Forests – because of a lack of water.

“We are trying to do everything we can not to do that,” said Elder.

The below-average fuel moisture levels in vegetation and sagebrush across the county improved recently, said Al Crouch, fire mitigation/education specialist for the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management.

“With the recent rain we did have our last report come in about average,” said Crouch.

Crouch said, however, the spring months across the county are predicted to be dry.

He cautioned it is still early to make conclusions about how dry the county will be.

“The better time to tell is really around Memorial Day,” said Crouch.

The central Malheur County area is a bread basket carved out the high desert because of the availability of water. With reservoirs showing low levels and drought lingering, huge cash crops such as onions will suffer, said Stuart Reitz, Malheur County extension agent.

“It is really a question of how long the water lasts and is it going to be enough?” said Reitz.

Recently, the Owyhee Irrigation District set a new allotment for irrigation water users at 2.1-acre feet. Last year the Owyhee Irrigation District cut its water allocation from 4-acre feet to 3-acre feet. An acre foot of water is enough water to flood an acre 1 foot deep. About 35,000 acres of farmland rely on the Owyhee Reservoir. Around 170,000 acres in Malheur County rely on irrigation water.

Reitz said the drought forced farmers to prioritize what they plant.

“They are going to try to get the water to onions just because they are a high value crop, so people cut back on other things. People have cut back on corn that they were thinking of, so they put in some really lucrative crops like spring wheat. It doesn’t take a lot of water relative to other things,” said Reitz.

Elder said one option for her operation is to acquire a water truck but “that is expensive too.”

“So, I am praying for rain,” said Elder.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

Previous coverage:

Owyhee Irrigation District sets allotment for spring irrigation

Low reservoir levels in Malheur County signal dismal irrigation season

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