Drought brings grim news to rural Oregon

Historically warm winter raises concerns about water access; farmers prepare for unprofitable year; Sen. Wyden pursues Wildlife Disaster Funding Act to prepare for wildfires.

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A historically-warm winter is raising concerns about water access.

Oregon is in its fourth-straight year of drought and it could stunt efforts to support Oregon’s rural economies, OregonLive.com reports.

Short of getting twice the normal rain this spring — which experts don’t expect — Oregonians can expect fewer healthy fish in the river, fewer seeds in the ground, fewer cattle in the fields and more acres on fire. The water problems could also undermine plans to boost Oregon’s flagging rural economy by expanding irrigated agriculture in the Umatilla Basin and increasing logging access to federal forests.

Longer-term implications are scarier. Conditions in Oregon match scientists’ predictions about how climate change will play out here, with warmer, wetter winters robbing mountains of snow, and hotter, dryer summers that further parch the land. With that in mind, some are beginning to wonder when to stop calling it an episodic water shortage, and start calling it normal.

NASA scientists say that “megadroughts” will become the norm in the West by the end of the century.

Farmers’ costs will increase this summer as demand for hay will be high and production is low.

Costs aren’t being passed on to consumers yet, OregonLive.com reports.

Across Oregon, dairy farmers are calculating how much revenue they can afford to lose – or additional costs they can absorb – and still stay in business. Dairy farmers typically spend half their revenues on forage — the food cows eat when they aren’t grazing on open land, usually during the spring before the grass starts drying out. But that’s when corn and hay are plentiful.

Eventually, those costs to farmers could show up in the grocery store. A long string of low milk prices has driven dairy farmers out of the business at an unprecedented rate over the past 10 years, said Tami Kerr of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. And that’s even with milk holding on as one of Oregon’s most profitable agricultural products, bringing in more than $634 million in revenue in 2013, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Milk prices rose in 2014 for the first time in awhile, helping many dairy farmers make repairs and purchases they put off during a years-long slump. But one year won’t save everyone.

The state’s winemakers and nurseries are also being affected by the sustained drought.

Preparing for a fiery summer, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden is teaming with Idaho’s Mike Crapo to attach a provision to the Senate’s budget that would change funding for wildfire response.

The Wildlife Disaster Funding Act would stop agencies from treating fires as natural disasters, Portland Business Journal reports.

The move sets the state to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would eliminate the need for federal agencies to raid their prevention budgets to pay to fight increasingly fierce forest fires. If approved, the act would move any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average into a special disaster funding account that is separate from the U.S. Forest and Interior budgets.

It has 11 bipartisan cosponsors.