CORVALLIS - Oregon State University Extension Service specialists and Experiment Station researchers are assembling a deluge of information for the public on how to save water, energy and money in case of a severe drought this summer.
OSU Extension leaders are preparing for questions about water shortages, crop failures, power outages and other possible drought consequences by updating water conservation information on web sites, posting relevant publications on-line and forming a drought task force.
Although a wet April this year has increased mountain snow packs from a March 31 level that was 40 percent of normal to about 70 percent of normal in some places, Oregon remains on track for the worst summer drought since 1977, when annual rainfall totals were less than half of normal.
The National Weather Service measures annual rainfall from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.
As of Thursday, April 26, Portland was 11.75 inches below its seasonal normal of 28.87 inches. The 1.68 inches of rain recorded in Eugene during the same time has brought the seasonal total there to 16 inches - 26 inches below normal.
In Burns, the rainfall total was 4.82 inches as of April 26 - 1.63 inches below the normal of 6.45 inches. While two inches of rain one way or another has little impact in western Oregon, in Burns it means the region will have to survive without a quarter of its scarce annual rainfall.
Rain showers that have lingered on and off since April 1 have raised hopes that the drought threat has eased. But it would take soaking, record-setting rain between now and July to avert water shortages this summer, said state climatologist George Taylor of OSU's Oregon Climate Service. Time and history are stacked against the possibility that summer rains are coming to the rescue, he said.
"We get about 75 percent of our precipitation between October and March," Taylor said. "Even if we were to record the wettest April, May and June ever, we're still way, way behind."
Has a wet spring ever saved Oregon from a late-summer drought?
"The closest we came was in 1993," Taylor said. "It was the wettest spring we've ever had." The spring followed a dry winter after a dry summer and fall in 1992. By March, predictions were flying of a severe drought. Instead, the skies opened, and the rain fell steadily through July. Portland's rain gauge recorded 14 inches between March and July 1993 - roughly double the usual rainfall for those months.
Eugene's rainfall amounted to almost 20 inches during that time - almost triple the usual seven inches.
At OSU's rain-freshened, blossoming campus, Bill Braunworth, the assistant Agriculture Extension program leader, has organized a drought task force. So far, it includes 11 OSU Extension program leaders and Experiment Station researchers with expertise in master gardening, forestry, range management, nutrition and communications, bioresource engineering and crop and soil science.
The task force is developing a plan to deliver the latest water and energy conservation techniques via the Web and publications to homes, farms, businesses and educators. The drought information includes:
The sooner people receive the needed drought information, the sooner they can begin planning, Braunworth said.
"It is important that we get people connected to our local Extension offices for site-specific information," Braunworth said. "For example, we recently had an inch of rain in Pendleton, but much less in Moro. So we have to think 'What kind of tillage and weed control practices do we need to be looking at in response to the moisture we got - or didn't get?'
"What we need on a statewide level is to be thinking about what are the probabilities for future droughts, and how do we respond to those future scenarios," Braunworth said. "We need some trend information to start setting up for the most likely scenario."
Ann Marie VanDerZanden, the director of the OSU Extension Service Master Gardener program, also serves on the task force. She already is working with gardeners who want to know how to plan, plant and maintain their lawns and gardens during a drought.
"One basic thing I'm telling people is that if you don't need to plant something this year, wait until the fall rather than trying to establish it this (summer)," she said.
Bruce Nisley, an Extension livestock specialist in Sherman County, said wheat growers and cattle ranchers are hoping for rain but planning for drought.
For example, Sherman County's 270 wheat growers and 70 cattle producers can qualify for U.S. Department of Agriculture low-interest loans under the Conservation Reserve Program. Such loans could become available to farmers if their crops fail or if ranchers are forced to buy feed for their livestock in case range vegetation dries up.
Gov. John Kitzhaber already has declared Klamath County a disaster area, setting in motion the events that will free up low-interest federal loans there.
For ranchers, talk of a drought could mean an end to a three-year spell of increasingly favorable cattle prices --- the highest prices in 30 years. The market price for feeder-weight beef is up to 95 cents a pound, compared to 75 cents a pound in 1998, Nisley said.
However, if drenching rains don't fall in Oregon's cattle country to keep range forage fresh, ranchers soon may be competing to buy hay at $120 a ton or more.
"A cow will eat 30 pounds of hay or more a day," Nisley said. "That's about $1.80 a day per head for feed costs. That is a cost you normally wouldn't assume because you've already paid $9- to- $15- a head per month in grazing fees."
Ranchers are likely to avoid the additional expense by sending their cattle to market early, thereby increasing supply and possibly driving down prices.
Brian Tuck, a Wasco County-based Extension agent specializing in dryland and irrigated field crops, said the April rains in other parts of Oregon did not materialize in the Mid-Columbia area, where the drought is already here.
"You don't want to cry the sky is falling, but we are going to face a challenge this year," Tuck said. "We are 50 percent of normal. The sad part about all this is that other areas have been getting some relief these last two weeks with the storms that have come through, but it has not amounted to anything where we are in the Mid-Columbia. There is a lot of concern by growers about how this crop will turn out."
Wasco County wheat farmer John McElheran has stopped hoping that late-season rain will save his crop.
"It's already as bad as it's going to be," McElheran said.
The McElherans have raised wheat on their 1,000-acre farm near Maupin in Wasco County for five generations with only 8.5 inches of annual rainfall. They grow mostly winter wheat, with a small crop of spring wheat and some irrigated grass seed and fine fescue.
"This year, there isn't enough water for either the dry-land wheat farming or the irrigated fields," McElheran said. "Our irrigation water comes from reservoirs in The Cascades. Normally we get three or more irrigations. This year, the local water district is telling us we're going to get one irrigation. Part of the reason is that here we're already in the third year of a severe drought.
"In 1999, the last rain I got was at the end of March. Last growing season, the last rain was April 10. There's no telling what's going to happen this year. Now we're just hoping for an early drenching of fall rains (for next year)."
Clint Shock, an agricultural scientist at OSU's Malheur Experiment Station, said farmers who are hoping for rain are also looking for more tangible answers. More have been trying out a new drip irrigation system developed at the Malheur Experiment Station in Ontario on Oregon's eastern border with Idaho.
Farmers in the normally-arid Malheur County have successfully grown about 1,000 acres of onions using the new drip irrigation technique, which provides deep watering to plant roots with less water-and less loss to evaporation-than traditional furrow irrigation or sprinklers.
Publications about effective irrigation systems are among the two dozen information publications already available on a fast-evolving drought information link available through the Extension and Experiment Station Communications web site. More than 22 publications offer information on water conservation, energy savings and gardening strategies at http://eesc.orst.edu. Under "Featured Topics," click on the "Water Conservation Publications" square, which shows a rushing stream. In addition to publications, the site has links to national and regional drought information sites.
A link to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization offers information on drought monitoring, current maps of drought conditions and forecasts and sources of assistance for those who already have suffered drought-related losses.
To monitor weather conditions, read about latest drought updates and track daily rainfall totals, log onto the Oregon Climate Service. Click on "Observations." You will find rainfall totals for selected Oregon cities under "Daily weather observations."
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George Taylor, 541-737-5705