Corvallis City Hall in the summer heat. (Cassidy Smith, OMN Illustrator)
Corvallis City Hall in the summer heat.

Cassidy Smith, OMN Illustrator

Drought in Oregon?

Local experts on how drought impacts every sector of the environment

May 2, 2023

This winter and spring may feel as rainy and dreary as ever, but believe it or not, Oregon is in drought.

Despite how rainy it may feel here day-in and day-out, Oregon has been experiencing significant drought in recent years. Here in Corvallis, we are 4.71 inches below the average since September 1st of this year.

“The simplest definition of drought is insufficient water to meet the demand,” said Erica Fleishman, the director of Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. 

Fleishman explained that much of Oregon has been experiencing drought for the past three years and the frequency of drought, the amount of areas affected and the severity of the drought have all increased over the past 20 years in the western United States, including the Pacific Northwest. 

This trend is projected to continue as climate change progresses, said Fleishman. As the climate continues to change, continued drought in Oregon will have many impacts on forests, agriculture, river flow, water quality, human health, economies and more. 

Fleishman noted that more precipitation is falling as rain than snow, which means there is less water stored in the snowpack, and the annual snowpack melts earlier. This in turn impacts soils and vegetation, which tend to lose moisture more rapidly when temperatures are high.

“These changes can increase the probability that a spark will grow into a wildfire,” Fleishman said. 

Jeff Reimer, the department head and professor of applied economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences, said the three main impacts in Oregon were issues with small towns’ well water, hay and livestock feed impacting the dairy and beef industry and the wellbeing of our forests. 

“Some Douglas firs are under a lot of stress right now. With increased drought, they could be more susceptible to insect infestations and wildfires,” Reimer said. 

Reimer said that more farmers in Oregon are leaving land fallow. This means they are not planting on their land and land is left to rest and regenerate for long periods of time. 

The majority of the most concerning drought in Oregon is occurring in south-central and southeastern Oregon.   

Emma Gilmore, a junior at OSU from Bend, Oregon, is an avid skier and said that she has recognized a noticeable difference in snowfall over the past few years compared to when she was younger. 

Gilmore also pointed out that there has been a dramatic increase in wildfires in recent years and she has almost had to evacuate her house a few times. 

“Fires and drought have led to a huge negative effect on air quality and outdoor recreation which Bend and central Oregon is known for,” Gilmore said. 

In these areas, water for irrigation has been limited and flows in many rivers and streams have been increasingly low. This in turn adversely affects many native fishes and Oregon’s recreational sector, Fleishman said. 

Both Fleishman and Reimer explained that water stored in Oregon’s reservoirs is getting lower. In addition, drought has impacted water quality, and when water supplies are strained, it can become more expensive. Furthermore, there are many adverse effects of drought on human health such as food scarcity, disease and strain on mental health.

“For instance, farmers are much more likely to report stress during periods of drought,” Fleishman said. 

Rather than thinking about adapting to a particular drought, it can be useful to think about adaptation to increasing aridity, Fleishman said. There always will be unusually cool or wet years, even as the climate becomes warmer and drier. 

Fleishman said that many individuals, communities, policymakers and sectors are thinking about potential adaptations. These range from xeriscaping to changing crop types or experimenting with dryland agriculture to developing a stronger infrastructure for alleviating drought-induced food insecurity. 

“We are part of a global system of food and agriculture,” Reimer said. “The food prices we see here reflect patterns happening on a wide spectrum.”

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