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Jackson County declares drought emergency

Mail Tribune/file photo Multiple years of drought have depleted water levels at Emigrant Lake east of Ashland.
Drought continues to be widespread across Oregon

In what has almost become an annual rite of spring, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners declared a drought emergency Wednesday due to low water levels.

The commissioners have declared a drought emergency for at least three years in a row.

Declaring a local drought emergency paves the way for commissioners to ask Gov. Kate Brown to declare a drought emergency for Jackson County. Brown has already declared drought emergencies this year for a variety of counties scattered across Oregon in response to requests from those counties.

A declaration allows the Oregon Water Resources Department to take measures such as allowing the supplemental use of ground water and prioritizing water for human and livestock use.

All of Oregon is suffering moderate to exceptional drought conditions except the northwest corner of the state that includes Portland. All of Jackson County is in severe or extreme drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

The NIDIS said conditions in Jackson County will lead to pastures going brown, reduced hay yields and higher prices for hay, ranchers selling off cattle, less water for wildlife and recreation, bears moving into urban areas, delayed crop planting, fallow fields, scarce irrigation water and higher wildfire risk.

Reservoirs in Jackson County that feed local irrigation districts are at extremely low levels. They were designed to hold multiple years-worth of water, but ongoing drought has drained some almost dry.

Last year was the shortest irrigation season on record, with the Talent Irrigation District shutting off water in mid-July and the Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts ending their seasons at the beginning of August, well before harvest time for crops such as pears and wine grapes.

District managers plan to discuss the water situation later this month, then decide how long their seasons might last, or whether water will flow at all.

The districts provide water to 40,000 acres of land in Jackson County. Another 170,000 acres of land get water from streams and other sources.

Stream flows are only 29% of average in Jackson County, Oregon Water Resources Department Watermaster Shavon Haynes told commissioners in a briefing last week.

On Wednesday, Emigrant Lake was 11% full, Hyatt Lake was 12% full, Howard Prairie Lake was 9% full, Fish Lake was 39% full, Fourmile Lake was 16% full and Agate Lake was 71% full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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