July 23, 2024

Jackson County drought declaration: As snowpack dwindles, so do streamflows

The Jackson County watermaster "teacup" diagram depicts current water levels of area reservoirs on Tuesday, June 27.
June 28, 2023

Gov. Kotek warns of potential ‘natural and economic disaster conditions’

By Shaun Hall, Rogue Valley Times

The snow has mostly melted, streamflows are down and at least one irrigation district has begun to draw down reservoirs for irrigation in Jackson County, where Gov. Tina Kotek on Tuesday declared a drought emergency.

Snowpack this spring in southwest Oregon reached 185% of normal, and runoff from melting snow has fed streams and lakes, but those good omens have given way to persistent drought.

May was one of the warmest months on record in Jackson County, where streamflow is 65% of average for the water year, which began last fall, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

Wanda Derry, manager of the Talent Irrigation District, said water supply conditions have improved over past years, but remain below historic norms.

“The streamflows are dropping off very rapidly,” Derry said Tuesday, when contacted by phone about Kotek’s declaration. “We’re starting to rely on the reservoirs because the natural streamflows are dropping off. … We’re just now starting to draw the reservoirs down.”

Emigrant Lake was 64% full Tuesday. Gov. Tina Kotek declared a drought emergency in Jackson County Tuesday. Rogue Valley Times photo by Andy Atkinson

A typical irrigation season lasts from April 15 to Sept. 30, but the season was only five weeks long in 2021 and seven weeks long last year in the Talent Irrigation District because of drought, according to Derry. This year’s irrigation season started May 22 and is expected to last at least until the end of August, she said.

“Our water supply this year was better than the last two years combined,” Derry said. “(Reservoirs) are not full, but they’re way better than they were.”

The district uses water from Emigrant, Hyatt and Howard Prairie lakes. As of Tuesday, Emigrant Lake was 64% full, Hyatt Lake was 56% full and Howard Prairie was 49% full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners requested the emergency declaration last month.

“Above-average snowpack is not forecasted to supply the needed amount to offset drought conditions,” according to minutes of the board’s May 24 meeting, when it adopted an order declaring a local drought state of emergency. “Many farmers, ranchers and vineyards rely solely upon natural water sources, which are not augmented by local reservoirs, and these natural tributaries to the Rogue and Applegate rivers are in extreme jeopardy of drying ….”

The governor’s executive order declaring a drought emergency stated that conditions were looking disastrous.

“I find that low streamflow, low precipitation, and low soil moisture have caused or will cause natural and economic disaster conditions in Jackson County,” Kotek stated in the order. “Forecasted water supply conditions and precipitation levels are not expected to improve.

“Extreme conditions are expected to affect local growers and livestock, increase the potential for fire, shorten the growing season, and decrease water supplies.”

Kotek, who was advised by the Oregon Drought Council, directed state agencies to assist water users and help them seek federal assistance. Under an emergency, the state’s Water Resources Department can provide temporary emergency water permits, including permits to draw groundwater.

According to the Water Resources Department, “The primary benefits of a state drought declaration from the governor are that it creates greater awareness of drought conditions, facilitates coordination between state agencies, and allows the Water Resources Department to provide existing water right holders with access to emergency water management tools.”

An emergency declaration also allows state and local jurisdictions to implement a water conservation plan or water curtailment plan.

Reach Rogue Valley Times outdoors and environmental reporter Shaun Hall at 458-225-7179 or This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

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Bert Etling

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