A big story in 2014 might be 2013’s weather.
The new year inherited the old year’s developing drought, a condition that has Garden Valley farmer Don Kruse appealing for help.
“When you see the weather man, request snow,” he said. “Unless we get a lot of rain from now on, we’re going to have some really low water in the South Umpqua River.”
2013 was Roseburg’s driest year ever. Only 16.11 inches of rain fell at the city’s airport. The previous record, set in 1944, was 23.7 inches.
The dry year stunted pastures, forced farmers to irrigate crops early and contributed to Oregon’s worst wildfire season.
But all that might just be a warm up if Douglas County has another dry winter and spring.
A year ago, the snowpack was above average. Even though February saw record-low rain, melting snow replenished rivers.
Drought worries mounted during a record-hot July. But Roseburg received above-average rainfall in August. And the next month, the remnants of Typhoon Pabuk hit Oregon. Roseburg received almost one-fourth of its entire year’s rain over the last 10 days of September.
The timely rains meant farmers who draw from the South Umpqua River didn’t have their water cut off, a common occurrence even in years with normal rainfall.
“We got just enough precipitation at just the right times,” said Umpqua Valley Watermaster Dave Williams, who must enforce water restrictions. “That saved my bacon.”
The skies shut off again, however. Roseburg received only 3.7 inches of rain during the last three months of the year, compared to the usual 14 inches.
Unlike this time a year ago, rivers are running at a fraction of their normal levels. The snowpack for the Umpqua Basin is 30 percent of normal, according to the National Resources Conservation Service.
A dry winter and spring will have a far greater cumulative affect than last year.
“The impact last year was actually pretty minimal,” Oregon State University Extension Service horticulturist Steve Renquist said. “The real impact is yet to come. It’s in the year ahead.”
A YEAR OF EXTREMES
Roseburg weather records date back to 1899, but are imprecise. Records from many days are missing. Even in the age of automated stations, records are spotty. For example, data from the Roseburg airport for the first days this past December are missing.
Nevertheless, Roseburg likely never saw a July so hot, a December so cold, a February so dry or a September so wet.
Anyone seeking a way to connect the extremes will be disappointed. “The lesson we learned is anything goes,” said Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service in Corvallis.
Ocean temperatures, indicative of whether the Northwest will have a wet or dry year, were neutral in 2013. High-pressure ridges parked off the coast contributed to an arid spring and dry December. But as for why the region went through a yearlong dry spell, “there’s no satisfactory explanation,” Dello said.
The mixed-bag weather presented farmers with challenges and blessings. “It was kind of good and bad,” Kruse said.
The dry spring forced early irrigation. But the hot July, when the average high temperature was a record 90.1 degrees, suited some crops.
“We had a lot of days crowding 100 (degrees),” Kruse said. “The hot weather really didn’t bother us, I don’t think. I’d rather have that than a cold, cloudy day.”
Renquist said the season looked perfect for wine grapes until record September downpours threatened to pelt the fruit. Douglas County, however, mostly avoided the damage suffered by winegrowers in the Willamette Valley. “In hindsight, the impact was pretty minimal,” Renquist said.
The weather went to extremes again in December, which was the coldest ever in Roseburg. The average temperature of 36.3 degrees, an average of the day’s high and low temperatures, broke the old record of 37.6 degrees set in 1932.
Nighttime temperatures dropped below freezing for 10 straight days in early December. Snow blanketed the county Dec. 6.
Renquist said the cold may have benefits, such as diminishing hoards of invasive bugs and driving fruit trees into deep and healthy dormancy. But eventually, the county will need water.
“In the short run, you’ll see a few gains, but in the long run, it’s all about water,” he said. “There isn’t any advantage to a long, dry spell.”
Williams, going into his 17th year as watermaster, said it’s too early for “high anxiety.”
Rains could start falling like “somebody flipped a switch,” he said.
“We do have three or four months we can build up the snow and five to six months for precipitation, but we need to get started,” he said.
Climatologists issue long-range outlooks, but they are only rough estimates of what the season might be like.
For the next three months, Oregon has an equal chance of having above or below average rainfall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Climate Prediction Center.
“It’s really hard to make a seasonable forecast,” Dello said. “Nobody knows.”
A light rain fell Friday morning in Roseburg, breaking a 10-day dry streak. Only .02 of an inch accumulated at the Roseburg airport, but the rain may have signaled a shift in atmospheric conditions.
The high-pressure ridge blocking moist Pacific air remains in place, but there are signs it’s weakening, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Nieuwenhuis said. Another wet front may ram the barrier early this week.
Nieuwenhuis likened the ridge to a large rock in a stream. It will take a lot of force to push it aside.
“This could be the beginning of change, but it’s hard to say right now,” he said. “Any change we’re going to get is going to be gradual.”
• City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.