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Portland may dodge parching drought


Bull Run reserves benefit city, but rest of state in for dry year

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - It's not the snow depth thats most important as the Natural Resouces Conservation Service does its snow surveys, but rather the amount of stored water in the snow. Hydrologist Julie Koeberle first tests the snow depth and then weighs that snow to determine its water content. At the Mount Hood testing site, the latest survey showed 17 inches of stored water, compared to the average of 60 inches for the site.On April 1, 76 percent of the snow survey sites across the state were at their lowest levels in recorded history.

At a survey site near Timberline Lodge, hydrologist Julie Koeberle measured just 17 inches of stored water content, compared to its average 60 inches.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service doesn’t use snow depth as a gauge of the snowpack condition, but rather the amount of water stored in the snow. Recent snows have added a bit to the total, but Koeberle estimates that the site would need about 9 feet of heavy, wet snow to make up the deficit. That’s simply not going to happen this late in the season.

That lack of stored water will have wide-ranging implications across the state — unless you live in Portland, where the impact should be minimal. The Portland outlook would only change dramatically if we get a sustained period of high temperatures through May and June.

The bulk of Portland’s water comes from the mid-elevation Bull Run Watershed, where most of the precipitation falls as rain.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - With this year's low snowpack, stream flows driven by snow melt that normally continue into June and July will be well-below normal by then, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.“The rainfall has been fairly normal for the winter and into the spring,” according to Gerald Macke, a meteorological technician for the Portland office of the National Weather Service. “We got a lot of precipitation, but it all ran off because it wasn’t cold enough to make snow at higher elevations,” he says.

Facilities at Bull Run were able to capture that runoff. The drinking water reservoirs that serve Portland are currently full, according to the Water Bureau. Officials anticipate a relatively normal summer water supply situation as long as we experience typical late spring precipitation totals.

Other parts of Oregon won’t be so fortunate, as they rely on the snowpack for agricultural irrigation.

“Water is the lifeblood of Oregon agriculture,” says Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, “and irrigation is the key to our lifeblood.” Farmers across the state are currently making decisions on what crops to plant, and it’s expected that some will choose less water-dependent crops. In many cases, those crops won’t generate the high values of their normal harvests.

With most of the state predicted to be in moderate-to-extreme drought conditions, many Oregonians are asking questions about what it all means to our everyday life. Here are the answers to some of those questions:

Will I have enough water to drink, garden and wash my car this summer?

Yes, according to Portland’s Water Bureau. In addition to the ample supply in the city’s reservoirs and the Bull Run Watershed, the city is able to supplement high summer demand with its Columbia South Shore well field. Helping the situation is the fact that even as population has increased, Portland’s use of water has decreased during the past 15 years.

Water customers in other parts of the state might not be so fortunate. If their municipal supply comes from water stored in the snowpack, the supplies are likely to be limited. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, some irrigation districts already are informing farmers that their supplies are going to be curtailed this summer.

Will my food prices be affected?

Probably yes. Fresh food supplies in Portland come from across the West and much of the West is experiencing as bad as or worse conditions than Oregon. The success of farmers will be dependent on their location and water source.

If farmers chose less water-intensive crops to plant, the supplies of their normal commodities could be affected. Crops such as onions and potatoes are more water-intensive to grow than grain crops.

Farmers who rely on snowpack for their water — like many in the Willamette Valley — are expected to be affected more than farmers in eastern Oregon who rely on rain and other sources. Due to a good precipitation year in the northern part of the Columbia River Basin, flows in the river are near normal, and that helps to support irrigation in adjacent parts of the state.

Much of Oregon’s $400 million wheat industry comes from dryland farming.

“If we continue to get decent rains in the spring, we’ll probably be fine,” says Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Grower’s League. “If it turns dry like it did last year, we’ll probably be looking at a below-average crop.”

Oregon’s average wheat crop is in the range of 50 to 55 million bushels, and represents a large export commodity for the region. Some of the wheat grown in the state comes from irrigated farms, and that production could be affected this year, depending on the source of the irrigation water.

What about power?

“From the Bonneville Power Administration’s perspective, we are actually doing OK,” says spokesman Mike Hansen. BPA looks at snowpack across the entire region, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Western Montana and British Columbia. Currently they show a snowpack at 90 percent across that region. “In higher elevations, and the farther north you went, the conditions were really pretty good,” he says.

“Snowpack is like money in the bank for us,” Hansen says. For the snowpack to melt at a slow, steady rate would be the best-case scenario for the agency. “If we have a really hot, dry streak where the snow melts faster than we would like, come later summer it could be a different situation,” he says. “We will meet our obligations, but how we do so will be a bit more challenging.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Normally the slopes of Mount Hood would be nearly completely covered by the mid-February date of this photo. Recent snows have hardly made a dent in the snowpack deficit. About 9 feet of wet snow would be needed to bring the level to normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.During the past several years nearly 5,000 megawatts of wind-generated energy has been added within BPA’s balancing authority. That’s the equivalent of nearly five nuclear power plants, according to Hansen. “That helps the situation out quite a bit,” he says.

“While we base our projections on ‘normal’ hydro conditions, we plan for the variability of the regional snowpack and have a diverse mix of resources we draw from to meet our customers’ needs,” says Portland General Electric’s Melanie Moir.

Won’t our power just get sold off to California, which is in deeper drought conditions than we are?

No, according to the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA provides approximately one-third of the electricity that is consumed across the Northwest, and has contracts with about 128 public utility districts.

“We’re required to meet those contractual obligations first,” Hansen says. “When we do have surplus power, we’re required to make it available in the Northwest first, before making it available to other locations.”

What about fires?

“That’s a lot dependent on how hot and dry it gets,” according to hydrologist Koeberle. “It could be an earlier season, as the soils will quickly dry up because we don’t have the snow to insulate them later in the season.”

The Portland Fire Bureau is looking closely at the weather. “Right now things are looking OK on this side of the Cascades,” says Lt. Justin de Ruyter. “Typically our fire season here hasn’t started until July. Concern this year is that we’re going to be a month earlier than normal,” he says.

De Ruyter also serves on the state fire marshal’s incident management team, and is more concerned about other parts of the state. “We’re going to have fuel that’s ready to burn a lot earlier this year,” he says.

Portland has been working to be better prepared to fight wildland fires, like we might see in Forest Park or at Powell Butte. They now have a formal wildland team, made up of about 70 firefighters. When fire conditions are predicted, those members staff the bureau’s brush units and patrol vulnerable parts of the city. They’ve added additional hoses and equipment to their heavy trucks so that they can reach more remote fires.

When large fires occur elsewhere in the state, the governor can invoke the state conflagration act to bring firefighting resources from across the state into service. De Ruyter and many other Portland firefighters have been deployed to distant fires in recent years.

Those fires have provided experience for Portland’s more structure fire-focused department. “We’re starting to see more creepover from structure to wildland,” he says. In addition to experiencing wildland firefighting tactics, they’re learning about incident management. “The ability to go out and take on these complex incidents,” de Ruyter says. “The fires are getting bigger and more complex.” Fire behavior once only seen in California is now seen in some Oregon fires, he says.

Following the Willamette Bluff blaze from several years ago, the department started to develop specific pre-fire plans for specific susceptible areas, including a return of fire to the bluff.

Will I be able to enjoy the outdoors?

Because stream flows will fall off much earlier in the season, recreational activities such as whitewater rafting likely will experience shorter seasons. While some mountain reservoirs are at near-normal water levels, other are well below normal and that will affect access to them by boat, and uncover stumps and other obstacles not normally near the surface.

Backcountry travelers should expect restrictions on fires and open flames soonerin the season, due to an earlier-than-normal drying of fuels in the forest.

The winter was dismal for Oregon’s ski industry, but Mt. Hood’s Ski Bowl already has opened its summer-oriented Adventure Park. It’s scheduled to be open weekends, weather permitting, until its summer schedule starts on May 25.

Will Oregon’s ports be affected?

Probably not, but it’s too early to say. The Army Corps of Engineers works with other agencies and regulations to balance a number of factors to determine river flow, including power production, fish migration, irrigation and navigation.

Snowpack supplies in the Columbia basin appear to be near normal, and the corps manages river flow to minimize impact on navigation. It’s not unusual for river levels late in the summer to be low enough to restrict the amount of cargo that ships can carry through the Columbia system.

Wheat is one of the region’s leading exports, and at this point the harvest does not appear to be at significant risk, since much of the farming is done in dryland conditions — reliant more on rainfall than snowpack.

Will the drought affect fisheries?

Yes. “It’s definitely going to affect the fisheries industry,” according to Koeberle, “because fish really are affected by stream temperature.” With low stream flow and higher temperatures the water warms up. “This is really new territory for this record snowpack,” she says, “We haven’t seen this.” Strong stream flows usually continue into June and July, but this year they’re likely to be lower by May.

A number of federal and state agencies are involved in fisheries management. For the Willamette River basin, the Army Corps of Engineers is meeting at least weekly with other natural resource and regulatory agencies to “help balance the competing demands for limited water,” according to spokesperson Amy Echols.

Both water flow and temperature must be maintained at strict levels to support the specific needs and lifecycles of different fish populations.

Will the drought hurt Oregon’s economy?

Yes and no. Agriculture will definitely take a hit, with reduced crop yield and the production of lower-value crops. Consumers should expect higher prices for some fresh commodities, not just from Oregon, but from around the West.

Companies like Portland-based Erickson and Aurora’s Columbia Helicopters provide firefighting equipment around the world. Given the widespread drought conditions and predicted extended fire season, their crews should expect plenty of work this summer.

John M. Vincent is a Portland-based freelance writer. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or

@OregonsCarGuy on Twitter.