Douglas County and much of Oregon have entered severe drought conditions, which could lead to a host of problems including forest fires and poor spawning for steelhead and trout.
The U.S. Drought Monitor upped the area’s drought status last week from moderate to severe. Roseburg rainfall since Sept. 1 has been 11.7 inches below average.
The National Weather Service today issued a warning that fire danger will be high tonight through noon Friday in the Umpqua National Forest and Umpqua Valley. Forecasts warned that east winds could spread any fire that starts in the unusually dry vegetation.
Weather service meteorologist Ryan Sandler in Medford said a high-pressure wall continues to block most storms from entering Southern Oregon.
The reasons for the high-pressure ridge’s stubborn refusal to budge has stumped the experts, he said.
“It’s just uncommon. Usually high-pressure systems in the region move south and the storm track comes in. This year, it’s not going away,” Sandler said. “The researchers are scratching their heads and saying, ‘Why is this happening?’”
He said that so far this winter has been the driest since 1976-77.
Sandler said the dry weather will last at least until the end of the month.
A rainy February, March and April could make up for a dry early winter, but as things stand now, river flows and mountains snowpack are unusually low.
A storm with enough strength to break through the high-pressure system dropped .82 inches of rain in Roseburg Jan. 11. Also that day, about a foot of snow fell at Diamond Lake. It was the wettest day in Roseburg since Sept. 29. Just .04 inches of rain fell Jan. 12 and none has fallen since.
The Rogue and Umpqua basins snowpack is 19 percent of normal. Crater Lake has 19 inches of snow on the ground, 22 percent of normal, and has seen just 69 inches of snowfall since Oct. 1, according to the National Park Service. Crater Lake averages 248 inches of snow by this date.
“It’s plenty dry out there,” said Umpqua Basin Watermaster Dave Williams. “Our precipitation statistics are not very favorable for us at this point in time. The only potentially good news is we have three or four months where we could make up that deficit. Somebody needs to throw the switch and get that started.”
Williams said the biggest concern is the low snowpack. If it does not grow higher over the rest of the winter and spring, aquifers will not be able to recharge.
On Wednesday, the South Umpqua River at Tiller was flowing at 400 cubic feet per second, 2,000 below average. The North Umpqua at Winchester was flowing at 1,900, well below the average 6,800 and the main stem Umpqua River was flowing at 3,000, strikingly low compared to the average 17,000 for this time of year, Williams said.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist Tim Walters, the agency’s Umpqua Watershed District Manager, said low rivers could cause migration delays for steelhead, coho, chinook and trout.
If the snowpack does not rebuild, he said, some fish will be unable to reach the tributaries where they ordinarily spawn. Those who make it through could find themselves in shallower, warmer water, where they are more susceptible to disease and predators. Some may spawn in the Umpqua rivers rather than the tributaries.
“They’ll be looking for cooler places with lots of water and those will be fewer and farther between,” Walters said.
Anglers could feel the impact of poor spawning this year for several years to come, since coho won’t return for two or three years and steelhead and chinook return at multiple ages.
Weather service meteorologist Mike Stavish said this morning that a red flag warning is unusual in January, but he said the dry weather, combined with predicted dry and gusty east winds, creates the possibility that campfires or trash burning could lead to out-of-control burns.
“We’ve had such a dry season so far, the fuels in the forest, the dead and downed trees and the wooded material on the forest floor, is much drier than it normally is,” Stavish said.
“It’s not something typically we have done in the past. I’ve been here since ’98, and I don’t think we’ve ever done fire weather headlines like this during the winter season,” he said.
Areas above 3,000 feet are likely to experience high and gusty winds, he said.
High winds may blow fog out of the valleys and could create sunny days throughout the region and record highs along the Southern Oregon coast, including North Bend, Brookings and Bandon.
Roseburg’s high temperatures are expected to be in the low to mid-50s through the end of the week.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The only potentially good news is we have three or four months where we could make up that deficit.
Umpqua Basin watermaster