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Farmers across Polk County have already turned to irrigating their fields because of a lack of rainfall throughout the spring, the fifth-driest on record in Oregon.
May 21, 2013
MONMOUTH/INDEPENDENCE -- Farmers in Polk County are experiencing the fifth driest start to a year on record in Oregon -- the driest since 2001.
Following a spring that was one of the wettest on record, farmers are now having to irrigate much sooner than normal.
The low precipitation levels present a double whammy for farmers: Little rain means having to irrigate sooner, but the sources for irrigation are already low because of the abnormally dry weather.
"The stream flows for this time of year are pretty close to, if not at, the lowest flow ever recorded," said Mike McCord, Watermaster for District 16 of the state of Oregon's Water Resources Department. "This time of year it's not a big issue, but in a month or two if the flows continue to be low, that's when farmers can be affected."
District 16 covers all but the extreme western portion of Polk County, the majority of Benton, Marion and Yamhill counties, and portions of Clackamas and Linn counties.
If stream and river levels aren't replenished by rainfall, the state will be forced to regulate water availability based on water rights.
"Over in Marion and Clackamas counties, streams get regulated based on priority dates almost annually," McCord said. "On the Polk County side, it doesn't happen very often."
Some farmers welcomed the drier spring and were able to get in the fields earlier than normal to begin planting. Last year, most farmers got a later start because of inundated land.
Concerns are now shifting to water availability during a time when rain historically begins to taper off.
"I think with the deficits we're seeing, it will have an effect. We're past the point in time where we see really big rain, unless it's a thunderstorm," Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service, said. "We have to make up about 10 inches. The past few springs have been really wet, night and day difference."
When confronted with a much drier than average spring, farmers with junior water rights have to make decisions on what and when to plant. Crops with a shorter season, or ones that require less irrigation than others, could take precedence over normally planted crops.
Polk County's vibrant and celebrated vineyards are not immune to the atypically dry conditions either. Places like Airlie Winery, which dry farms its vineyard, don't have a mechanism in place to make up for lost rain.
"Right now, the grapes are just loving it because it's been warm and they have enough moisture to get started," Mary Olson, owner of Airlie Winery, said. "We're worried, because we're farmers. We depend on having a reservoir. We're worried that there's not going to be that reservoir this year."
An irrigation system was put in when the vineyard was planted in 1983, but Olson doesn't plan on using the aging system.
Airlie has begun removing the cover crop at the base of the vines -- something they've never done during the summer -- to reduce any stress on the vines and preserve moisture.
"I'm expecting that mother nature is going to make up for this somehow, but it is a little troublesome," Olson said. "I'm an optimist. I'm not going to panic over things I can't affect."
Olson and other area wineries are communicating with each other on how to hold up during the dry spring and produce a quality yield come harvest time.
Upcoming forecasts predict the potential for some rain, but not nearly enough to make up for the dramatic shortages farmers have experienced so far this year.
"We're somewhat fortunate in that November and December were above average wet. It's not as dire a situation as it could be," Dello said. "If it was dry from October to now, it would be pretty terrible."