Governor declares drought in 4 SE Ore. counties

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) Gov. John Kitzhaber on Friday declared a drought in four counties in the high desert of southeastern Oregon. More are likely to follow.

The drought declaration applies to Klamath, Lake, Harney and Malheur counties. Kitzhaber said all applied for the state designation, which allows for greater flexibility in water management.

"It's sobering having this conversation about drought declarations in four counties in February, and we've already had a couple wildfires," he said. "It looks to me like this is the tip of something long."

Kitzhaber said he expected Jackson County to be next.

A federal drought disaster declaration is needed to authorize federal aid, Oregon Department of Agriculture spokesman Bruce Pokarney said.

Last month, agricultural producers in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Lake counties became eligible for federal low-interest loans because they border drought disaster areas in California designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. Drought Monitor showed severe drought across all but the northernmost tier of counties in Oregon.

Kitzhaber said he is considering bringing together mayors and watermasters to talk about voluntary water conservation measures, but he does not expect mandatory steps to be needed yet.

He noted that snowpack has been as low as 20 percent and precipitation half of normal along the border with California, where a drought was declared last month.

"The drought will not be resolved without prolonged, substantial snow and rainfall," Kitzhaber said in a statement. "Irrigators, ranchers, fisheries and communities are under severe stress form both water shortages and the risk of wildfires on top of last season's record conditions."

Just what sort of federal help will be available is not clear. After last year's drought declaration, some farmers on the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border, got money for idling land. But upper basin ranchers got nothing when they had to stop irrigating pasture out of rivers because the Klamath Tribes exercised newly recognized water rights to protect fish.

After the shutoff, ranchers got together with the tribes to work out agreements for sharing water.

Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams said this summer will be worse than last, with the state shutting off irrigation wells, as well as withdrawals from rivers.

There are no estimates of crop damage from drought, Pokarney said, but "there is great concern that crops will be impacted this year, with places like Malheur and Klamath counties specifically at risk. That's also causing some growers right now to make decisions to plant less acreage in order to have enough water for what is planted."

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