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Driest summer in 50 years a glimpse of the future

For growers of everything from pears to cannabis, the news is grim. Irrigation water may be shut off by Aug. 1, just as crops enter the stage when they need it most. The long-term outlook is even more dire.


Drought is not a new phenomenon in Southern Oregon. In fact, if you want to get technical about it, every year is a drought year, because farmers must use stored water to irrigate crops in the summer months. That’s according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s summary of weather trends.

But in most years, that stored water, held in reservoirs until released, is enough to last through the growing season. Not this year. Coming off a dry year in 2020, there was not enough precipitation to replenish reservoirs for the 2021 season.

State climatologist Larry O’Neill, an associate professor at Oregon State University, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the data indicate this part of the world is experiencing the driest 20-year period in the past 1,000 years. The evidence points to something more ominous than just a couple of dry years.

All across the country, temperatures are climbing, a symptom of climate change. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration issued its latest “climate normals” last month, based on measurements of temperature, rain, snow and other variables from thousands of points nationwide.

The New York Times reported that the “normals” — issued every 10 years since 1930 — show a steadily warming climate when compared with the 20th century average.

Precipitation totals have changed, too — and on the surface that should be a good thing, because warm air holds more moisture. Oregon is expected to see more precipitation in coming years, according to the state’s latest climate assessment. But more of it will be rain, and less will be snow. In addition, warming temperatures mean what snowpack there is will melt sooner in the year, rather than the slow, steady melting that fills reservoirs. Rain, even torrential rain, is no substitute for snowpack, because it runs off before it can be captured.

All that is likely to mean longer and more severe droughts. And that could mean fundamental changes to the Rogue Valley’s agriculture industry.

The problem is not confined to the Rogue Valley, or even to Oregon. And the reality is, it may not ever go away. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in a recent editorial, “Droughts are deviations from the norm. What we have now is no deviation. It is the norm itself. Our climate has changed. As much water falls from the sky as before, but at different times and in different ways.”

That might be the result of natural cycles. It might be the result of human activity. Either way, we had better get used to it.