SALEM — While parts of western Washington are already grappling with severe drought heading into the summer, Oregon appears to be in better shape than last year.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 17% of the state is in some stage of drought, compared to more than 90% at this time a year ago.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service also released its final water basin outlook report for June, showing that overall precipitation in Oregon is 95% of normal dating back to October 2018. Basins in Central and Eastern Oregon are mostly above average, thanks to record-breaking February snowfall and heavy rains in April.
The driest areas statewide include the Willamette Basin, at 89% of average precipitation as of June 10, and the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins at 80%.
It is a stark contrast to last year, when by June Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had already declared drought emergencies in Klamath, Lake, Grant, Harney and Wheeler counties. The governor would declare additional droughts through the summer in Baker, Douglas, Gilliam, Lincoln, Malheur and Morrow counties.
Drought in 2018 was fueled by below-average snowpack combined with unseasonably warm weather that melted snow up to 2½ times faster than usual at higher elevations. That left farmers and ranchers to grapple with water shortages, while leaving forests and rangeland especially prone to wildfire.
Conditions are much more favorable this year. The NRCS reports that 70% of long-term snow monitoring sites melted out within a week of their normal time frame. As of June 1, 13 sites still had some snow, which is also normal for the time of year.
Farmers and ranchers are looking at mixed stream flows from east to west through the end of the irrigation season in September. Streams and rivers varied widely in average flows during May, from 30% to 80% of normal across most of Western Oregon, and 100% to 190% in Eastern Oregon.
Reservoir storage continues to be a bright spot overall, with most reservoirs holding average to well above average amounts of water, according to the state Water Resources Department.
As summer heats up, Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest are again gearing up for another busy wildfire season, with the National Interagency Fire Center calling for a normal to above-normal potential for large fires.
Officials declared the start of fire season on June 10 in the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Central Oregon District, which includes 2.3 million acres of public and private forestland. District Forester Rob Pentzer said late May rain helped reduce fire risk, “but the recent warming trend is quickly drying fuels again and with limited moisture in the forecast it is unlikely that the risk will drop again.”
So far, one fire has been recorded in Oregon. The Taylor Butte fire was started by lightning on June 1 about 20 miles northeast of Chiloquin, and burned 293 acres before it was contained.