If you snow ski, then you’ve probably already witnessed the telltale signs that Oregon will be in a world of hurt come summertime regarding drought conditions in the state. Already Governor Brown has declared a drought emergency in two southeast Oregon counties: Lake and Malheur. Klamath County commissioners have also declared a drought in that county.
Even though the state has seen average precipitation to date, it has mostly fallen as rain. Oregon has experienced a warmer than normal winter, which means that very little precipitation in the Cascades has been snow. At last report, Mt. Hood was at 12 percent of its average snowpack at the beginning of March. As of March 16, Mt. Hood Meadows had a 28-inch base. Compare that to the 113-inch base Mt. Hood Meadows had at this same time in 2014. Meteorologists state that any precipitation the Cascades receive now will likely fall as rain except at the very highest elevations, and any snowfall at those higher elevations isn’t likely to make a dent in the snowpack deficit.
How did we come to this. Well for starters, we are experiencing a slight El Niño, but most climatologists will point to climate change as the major factor. California is in its third year of drought conditions. Despite what some will say about climate change being a myth, something dreamt up by the left to scare people, climate change is very real, and 97 percent of scientists who study the climate believe climate change is a very real and critical problem.
“If Oregon has received average precipitation this year, then why should I worry,” you might be asking yourself? The answer to that is simple. Think of snow as that time-release capsule you take when you’re sick. Snow gradually melts over the course of the summer months, providing sufficient water to keep rivers at adequate levels into the fall. Rainfall, while critical to maintaining water levels in lakes and ponds, basically adds little to rivers. Sure, when it rains heavily, rivers rise and sometimes overflow their banks, but rivers do not store water. The water in the rivers flows right to the ocean where it is lost. Come summer when precipitation levels normally drop, rivers would see little water flow if not for the snow melt.
So what does this mean to paddlers? If you enjoy paddling rivers, and many of us enjoy paddling the Tualatin, Willamette, Sandy, Deschutes, and Clackamas Rivers, then you’re in for some very bumpy water. You’re likely to see more gravel bars on the Sandy, Clackamas, Willamette Rivers that will require portaging unless you don’t mind scraping the bottom of you nice Kevlar canoe or fiberglass kayak. The Tualatin isn’t a very deep river except in the winter and early spring. By late spring and into early fall submerged stumps and rocks near the water’s surface require careful navigation around.
Paddlers who enjoy paddling lakes aren’t out of the woods, either. While the impact to paddling may be minimal on some lakes and ponds, lakes like Detroit, Foster, Hagg, Odell, Upper Klamath, Billy Chinook, Timothy and others that serve as reservoirs are likely to see a large drawdown on their water tables.
Perhaps you remember images from many years ago showing the docks at Detroit Lake hundreds of feet from the water’s edge. The low water level in Detroit Lake year was due to a combination of factors: low snowpack, little rain during the summer, and hydroelectric and stream flow needs. The problem could repeat this year if we experience a drier than normal summer.
And it isn’t just paddlers that will be affected. Lower river levels will have a detrimental impact on migrating salmon and steelhead, which will also affect the fishing season and harvest levels. Lower water levels also mean the water in spawning pools will warm faster, which will affect spawning success rates.
The bottom line: if you plan on paddling rivers this year, better paddle early in the year.
Click here to view the current drought report in Oregon.