During its regular meeting Monday, the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners declared a local disaster and drought emergency, and it asked the governor to make a similar declaration.
Last week, the board declared its first ever “drought watch,” essentially a signal that full drought status was imminent and the public should be prepared for changes in water use. Ninety percent of the American West and 99 percent of Oregon was already in some stage of drought, according the U.S. Drought Monitor.
There is no specific threshold that triggers a county drought declaration. It is based on a determination that water supplies are or soon will be low enough that typical local resources are not sufficient to respond — “extraordinary measures” will be needed to ease human suffering, environmental damage and economic losses and to respond to the threat of wildfire.
The county’s declaration notes that the Alsea and Siletz rivers are both discharging at close to half of average for this time of year and are expected to soon fall to record daily minimums. Moisture levels historically trend down until September, and forecasts predict near-average rainfall levels for June and less than average during July. Temperatures are expected to be above average for the rest of the summer (Newport likely set a record high last weekend).
The Alsea and Siletz are major water sources for local municipalities and agriculture. Those consumers take a back seat when flow levels run low enough, and state agencies are soon expected to invoke their priority instream water rights to protect wildlife and recreation, restricting junior rights holders from drawing water and further straining supply for farmers, commercial users and the general public.
In its declaration, the board asked Gov. Kate Brown to make her own declaration for Lincoln County under state statute and direct the Oregon Department of Water Resources to provide assistance.
While the commissioners’ declaration is the first step in tapping state and federal resources, the county is not itself a water provider, and conservation measures like restricting use are implemented by individual utilities.
Commissioner Kaety Jacobson noted that Waldport has already moved to a stage one water alert, which involves voluntary curtailment and public awareness efforts. Following the commissioners’ declaration Monday, the city of Newport announced it was following suit. Newport draws heavily from the Siletz to supplement the Big Creek reservoir during high demand periods.
Acting Newport City Engineer Chris Janigo advised city council during a work session June 21 that the move to stage one alert, which has an objective of reducing consumption by 5 percent, was coming. He said the city last faced drought conditions in 2019, which led to a stage two alert.
A stage two alert aims to reduce consumption by 10 percent by prohibiting certain kinds of usage (lawn and garden irrigation during certain hours, washing cars, filling pools) and possibly imposing curtailment rates to incentivize conservation. High-volume consumers like hotels must post notices about conservation measures.
Janigo said last year’s water emergency, in which fouling of the membrane filters at the water treatment plant reduced storage to as low as 25 percent of normal, led to a city declaration of emergency and a stage four alert.
The problem arose in late spring 2020, with public works staff and contractors struggling to identify the cause of the fouling. Storage reached critical lows in the run up to the July 4 holiday, when not only hotels but the city’s single-highest volume users, seafood processing plants, make some of their greatest demands on the system.
The city ended up restricting commercial supply, and the seafood plants were offline for more than a week. The stoppage is estimated to have cost processors and fishing vessels $3.3 million.
The cause of the clogged filters was eventually determined to be precipitants from abnormally high levels of manganese, iron and organics in untreated water.
Janigo said the environmental conditions believed to have contributed to that problematic mix — high spring temperatures leading to low levels of oxygen in the Big Creek reservoir, a dead zone at the bottom and the uplift of minerals and organics — were not present this year.
While water quality is not predicted to be an issue, Janigo said, “Water levels and water quantity seems to be the problem we’re encountering.”
Larry O’Neill, state climatologist and a professor at Oregon State University, joined the work session via video. He said Lincoln County had its fourth driest spring dating back to 1895, with precipitation levels 10 inches below average.
John Spangler, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told councilors low stream and river flow levels would have a direct impact on aquatic life. “Fish are going to end up getting bottlenecked,” Spangler said. He said the shallower, warmer water would also likely result in reduced smolt production. “We may be looking at some angling restrictions,” he said.
The Mid-Coast Water Conservation Consortium, formed by an intergovernmental agreement between the county’s largest water providers — Lincoln City, Newport, Toledo, Waldport, Yachats and the Seal Rock Water District — last week urged all water users to voluntarily conserve by minimizing irrigation and limiting it to overnight hours, refraining from filling pools and water features, and using water efficient fixtures, among other measures.