By Joseph Ditzler

The Bulletin

The Oregon Drought Council on Monday recommended the governor’s office declare a drought emergency in Crook County, the fifth county in the state to seek that designation.

Snowpack in the Ochoco Mountains, which feeds the headwaters of the Crooked River and fills the Ochoco and Prineville reservoirs, is only half its normal depth, according to recent measurements. Most of that snow lies above 6,000 feet; below that elevation the snowpack is almost nonexistent, Keith Mills, the Oregon Water Resources Department’s acting state engineer, told the council.

That means farmers and ranchers upstream of the reservoirs will see stream flows dropping earlier than usual, probably in late April or early May, according to presentations to the council Tuesday.

“The snowpack is almost gone right now,” said Peter Halvorson, Oregon environmental coordinator for the federal Farm Service Agency. “The Crooked River tends to have almost no flow by mid-July, August. It’s a little early to predict for sure, but that’s likely to occur a little bit earlier this year with no snowpack recharging the basin.”

A state-level drought declaration makes available to farmers and ranchers a number of relief measures, including temporary, expedited well permits, water right transfers and changes in water source rights, for example. The Crook County Court officially asked for a governor’s drought declaration on Feb. 20.

Gov. John Kitzhaber may sign off within a week, said Chuck Perino, emergency management planner with the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

If Kitzhaber approves, Crook County would join Klamath, Lake, Harney and Malheur counties in a drought emergency.

“We were dry going into February, as far as snowpack,” said hydrologist Melissa Webb of the National Resource Conservation Service, speaking of conditions statewide. She briefed the state Water Availability Committee, a part of the Drought Council. “Then February was a game changer for a lot of the state,” she said.

Between 20 percent and 30 percent of the annual snowfall dropped in February in Oregon, she said.

“Unfortunately, there were four dry months leading up to March 1,” she added. “One month of wet weather is not making up for four months of dry weather.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815,