March 17, 2015 / 8:15 PM / 5 years ago

Oregon governor declares drought emergency as snow pack levels drop

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Oregon Governor Kate Brown declared a drought emergency on Tuesday in two rural Oregon counties, with more expected in the coming weeks, as the state suffers abnormally low snow pack levels. 

The declarations in Oregon come as much of the U.S. West grapples with severe drought conditions.

Last week Washington state Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency across three regions of that state. And California is in its fourth year of a drought that has forced sharp cutbacks in irrigation supplies to farmers and conservation measures across the state.

Brown declared a drought emergency in Malheur and Lake counties in southeastern Oregon after dry conditions, low snow pack, and lack of precipitation prompted county officials to request the declaration, her office said. 

The snow pack levels across the state for March are between 6 and 38 percent of normal, said Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator for the state’s Water Resources Department. In Lake County, a small rural area in the high desert region that is home to cattle ranches and natural resources, the snow pack is 17 percent of normal. 

“Projected forecasts for Malheur and Lake counties look bleak, meaning these rural communities will continue to experience severe drought conditions,” Brown said in a written statement.

“In addition to creating an increased wildfire risk, this drought presents hardships to crops, agriculture, communities, recreation, and wildlife, all of which rely on Oregon’s water resources. I will continue working with federal, state, and local partners to help Oregonians in this part of the state through this challenging situation.”

Brown declared the emergency after Lake and Malheur counties requested the state to take action. She met last week with the Oregon Drought Council, which considers requests from counties experiencing drought conditions. Klamath, Harney and Crook Counties, where the snow pack is also drastically below normal, could follow suit, Rancier said.

Although rain for the year is near the normal range, the unusually warm winter weather has created low snow packs, causing concern for the upcoming dry summer. The snow pack is needed to fill rivers in the dry months when rain is sparse.

Unless there are significant spring and summer rains, there will most likely be low stream flows, Rancier said.  

The drought declaration gives the state more flexibility in water management, Brown’s office said. Oregon could also seek federal resources to help mitigate the drought.

Reporting by Shelby Sebens in Portland, Oregon; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sandra Maler

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