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'Grim' winter leads to drought

Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a drought emergency in Jackson County Wednesday in preparation for water shortages and low stream flows caused by the worst snowpack on record.

At the seven snow-measuring sites in the county, only one, at Big Red Mountain near the California border, had even a smidge of snow left as of Wednesday.

"It's grim," said Julie Koeberle, hydrologist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. "This is definitely a new record low."

The snow stations became operational at various dates starting in 1966, and many of them previously recorded no snow at this time of year. But Koeberle, who is part of the snow survey team, said this is the first time that all the stations are snow-free, with Big Red only at 6 percent of normal.

Adding to the county's water woes, long-range predictions by the National Weather Service indicate drier-than-normal conditions in the coming months, along with hotter-than-normal temperatures.

This dire outlook prompted the governor's action that coincided with recent announcements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that six Oregon counties be declared natural disaster areas because of drought. Drought declarations enable farmers in Jackson, Klamath, Lake, Malheur, Harney and Lane counties to seek assistance, including emergency loans, from the Farm Service Agency.

Overall snowpack in the Rogue Basin is 27 percent of normal, while the Klamath Basin is only 15 percent of normal.

Koeberle said the snowpack percentages for the region can be deceptive, particularly for hard-hit Jackson County. She said much of the snow that makes up the overall snowpack percentage was measured around Crater Lake.

Although there might be some snow on the tops of mountains still, the lower elevations that provide the bulk of water to streams and reservoirs are where the measurements are taken, Koeberle said.

The snows that normally feed Reeder Reservoir and provide Ashland with its drinking water haven't materialized. As a result, the city of Ashland could begin water curtailment measures by June.

Mount Ashland didn't open for skiing for the first time in history this year.

Snow-fed tributaries that provide water for farmers and property owners could start drying up later this summer.

Larry Menteer, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said Jackson County likely will have to restrict water use in smaller tributaries such as Evans Creek and the Little Applegate. Properties that have the oldest water rights will get preference, while those with newer rights could be cut off, he said.

Menteer said the effects likely will depend on how hot and dry the summer is, particularly by late August or September.

In anticipation of the drought, big agricultural interests in the region have tightened their belts, anticipating two alfalfa or hay cuts rather than the three or four they normally get, Menteer said.

Menteer and Jackson County Watermaster Travis Kelly say that those who depend on water rights need to remember that conservation is of utmost importance during a drought.

For Medford residents, the lack of snow will not affect this city's main source of water: Big Butte Springs.

"Actually, we're in fair shape," said Larry Rains, manager of the Medford Water Commission.

Spring flows are at normal levels and the Willow Lake reservoir is full. The city augments its water supply in the summer by treated water from the Rogue River.

"We don't expect any rationing or anything like that," he said.

However, Rains said residents of Medford and surrounding communities should use water wisely.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Emigrant Lake’s shoreline bakes under the sun Wednesday outside of Ashland. Gov. John Kitzhaber has declared a drought emergency in Jackson County.