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Jackson County declares drought disaster

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneLocal reservoirs, including Emigrant Lake east of Ashland, are at historically low levels.
Local reservoirs at historically low levels

Jackson County Commissioners declared a drought disaster this week due to unusually low water levels in local reservoirs that are key to irrigation.

Irrigation districts are warning farmers and ranchers to plan for what could be a very short season of water availability.

Earlier this week, Emigrant Lake stood at 21% full, Hyatt Lake was 14% full and Howard Prairie Lake was only 8% full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

About 400,000 acres are served by irrigation districts in the county, plus another 170,000 acres that get water through individual water rights, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

The drought disaster declaration for this year comes on the heels of a similar declaration for 2020.

Multiple years of below-average snowpack combined with long, hot summers have depleted water supplies in local reservoirs. From fall through the winter and into the spring, the reservoirs aren’t carrying over enough water. The reservoirs need a winter of unusually heavy snow and water runoff to replenish, but that hasn’t happened, according to the Talent Irrigation District.

The reservoirs could deplete even more without heavy spring rain.

"The extended weather forecast for Jackson County projects higher than normal temperatures and below average precipitation," Jordan said.

The conditions mean less irrigation water for farms, vineyards, orchards, livestock and people, plus low lake levels for recreation.

"In addition, this multiyear cumulative drought has resulted in decreased fuel moisture and early onset fire danger,“ Jordan said.

Now that the county commissioners have declared a local drought disaster, they’ll ask Gov. Kate Brown to declare a drought emergency for Jackson County.

Those steps allow for emergency financial help to offset crop losses, use of alternate sources of water and more flexibility on water regulations, according to Shavon Haynes, Oregon Water Resources Department watermaster for the Medford area.

On Wednesday, the governor declared a drought emergency covering Klamath County after commissioners there declared a local drought and asked for a state declaration. Brown’s move marked the first state drought emergency declaration for a county for 2021.

Klamath County is suffering from low snowpack, low precipitation, low streamflows and warmer than normal temperatures.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.