Roseburg typically receives more than 15 inches of rain during the first four months of the year.
This year, less than half that amount fell on the Douglas County seat, providing an early signal that it might be a dry summer.
“It’s probably premature to say we’re going to have a drought this year, but it’s safe to say we’re likely to have a water supply that is below normal to way below normal,” said Dave Williams, Douglas County’s watermaster.
The county received little in the way of April showers. Over the previous three years, it was drier than normal from January through March, but heavier than usual rains in April brought river levels back up and replenished underground aquifers, Williams said.
“All of the rain we didn’t get in the winter came in the spring,” he said. “Without that, it’s a concern this year.”
The South Umpqua River is running at 9.4 cubic feet per second, nearly one-third the normal rate for this time of year, Williams said. The North Umpqua and the main stem Umpqua are at half the normal flow.
The snow gauge at Diamond Lake shows the snowpack has already been depleted. Typically, that doesn’t happen until the end of May, Williams said.
Williams said he may be forced to cut off water to some irrigators this summer. Those who acquired water rights most recently are most vulnerable to losing their water. Usually, restrictions aren’t put into place in dry years until late July to the middle of August. This year, that may happen as soon as mid-June, he said.
Louis Sonka, a former sheep rancher who still owns land and leases it out on both sides of Interstate 5 near South Umpqua High School in Tri City, said the forecast doesn’t look good.
“It’s already pretty dry for this time of year,” Sonka said. “We’ll have to do a rain dance or something.”
Groundwater levels also drop in dry conditions. Wintergreen Nursery, south of Winston, relies on a well and has taken steps to conserve water, co-owner Mary Ann Winters said.
The nursery has moved potted plants closer together to cut the amount of water needed to sprinkle the plants.
“We have our eye on the situation,” Winters said. “We’ve had some low water years, but we’ve always had water to spare.”
Across-the-board federal budget cuts are reducing the information available about river flows in other parts of the state.
The U.S. Geological Survey turned off 11 stream and rain gauges in Oregon on Wednesday. Fortunately, Williams said, none were in the Umpqua Basin.
“It’s not a good thing, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to be affected,” Williams said.
Most of the gauges — which take readings every 15 minutes — are less important during the summer than in the winter, said Keith Overton, a Portland hydrologist who manages the state’s stream gauge program for the U.S. Geological Society.
“It’s summertime so the impact won’t be that great,” he said.
Douglas County uses data generated by 16 stream gauges. Five are on Cow Creek from above Galesville Reservoir to Riddle. Four are on the South Umpqua River between Tiller and Roseburg, while others are spread between the North Umpqua, the main stem of the Umpqua and along Deer Creek in Roseburg, Steamboat Creek near Glide and Elk Creek near Drain.
PacifiCorp pays the U.S. Geological Service to operate gauges on the electric company’s North Umpqua power generation project.
• You can reach reporter John Sowell at 541-957-4209 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.