Klamath County braces for a long, dry year

KLAMATH FALLS — Klamath County commissioners believe the current dry and warm winter may lead to drought conditions not seen since 2001, which could have deep impacts on the local economy.

Commissioners said they have not given up hope for rain and snow during February and March, but acknowledged current trends are leaving local farmers and ranchers rightfully worried.

“This year, because of what Mother Nature has caused, it could be devastating to agriculture,” said Commissioner Donnie Boyd.

Commissioners met Wednesday to discuss declaring a drought emergency, which would be among the first steps in allowing access to state and federal resources to help water users. Commissioner Derrick DeGroot said it is “most likely” a drought will be declared during their regular meeting on Feb. 6, given current conditions.

Commissioners said though they could wait until the end of the season to declare an emergency, they believed it was more prudent to take action now given how long the drought declaration process would take. If a drought is declared by commissioners, it must go through the Drought Readiness Council before approval by Gov. Kate Brown’s office.

“I would much rather be proactive and guess wrong than be reactive and guess wrong,” said Boyd.

He said he spoke with local farmers about their concerns and estimated the agricultural community could see a 50 percent loss in revenue due to the dry weather. This loss would come from both reduced production and the expense of mitigating a drought, such as drilling deeper wells to access ground water.

Boyd said farmers do have options, such as irrigating only part of their fields or growing drought-resistant crops. But if the conditions are as bad as 17 years ago, he said farmers won’t be able to avoid taking a hit.

“It’s still going to be devastating to the (Klamath) Project,” he said.

Boyd said fallout from the 2001 drought was not so much the result of weather as it was a decision by the federal government to stop water deliveries for irrigation to the Klamath Project from Upper Klamath Lake. Water was shut off to protect endangered fish and resulted in losses to local irrigators estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.

DeGroot said a loss of income to the agricultural industry would impact not only farmers and ranchers, but also the individuals they do business with. He said agriculture has a direct impact of roughly $300 million annually in Klamath County, and an indirect impact of closer to $1 billion.

Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris said local farmers are large supporters of community groups and, if they see a loss in revenue, local nonprofits may see a downturn as well.

“Our friends in ag do a lot of work in this community,” she said. “Their dollars go a long way.

“We have to do whatever we can to help agriculture,” she continued. “This has been a devastating winter so far.”

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