March 28, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Nobody wants to say drought not yet but without heavy consistent spring rains, Northeast Oregon will be looking at a long dry summer.

The water content of the high mountain snow pack is low, about 49 percent of normal throughout the Grande Ronde Basin, according to automated Snotel measurements. Precipitation is down to about 58 percent of normal for March and at 66 percent of normal since October.

The long-term April-to-July weather outlook shows no real strong signals either way, said Marilyn Lohman, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Pendleton. We have no signal that it will be drier than normal or wetter than normal.

As spring progresses, normal means less rainfall.

It appears well be short for the summer, Lohman said. Were at such a deficit, theres no way to make that up.

Mike Burton of the Natural Resources Conservation Service manually measured the water content of the snow at Meacham and Tollgate earlier this week.

Tollgate is at 75 percent not real bad off but Meacham is only 25 percent of normal, and at two points the ground was not covered with snow, he said.

Burton predicts a hard year in terms of stream flow.

Watermaster Shad Hattan agrees.

Were preparing for what could be one of the worst in 30 years, he said. It depends on the moisture from now on.

Mark Jacques of the Oregon Department of Forestry worries about fire danger. State forestry monitors and makes recommendations for forest management on private lands.

The fire danger will be dependent upon the amount of rain we get from here on out, especially June and July, he said.

A federal fire plan that funds more forest firefighters will help the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest prepare for and fight wild fires, but low moisture is bad news for all environmental and agricultural interests. Tree seedlings dont get

a good start if their roots dont reach water within a few days, said U.S. Forest Service silviculturist Jim Barrett.

Crops and fish health will be threatened by low stream flows, Burton said. Healthy fish depend on the quality and quantity of stream flows.

Water flow affects water temperature, and the temperature will be higher if everything else is the same, he said. Therell be a pretty substantial influence on steelhead, salmon and bull trout.

Irrigators with junior, or newer, water rights might find their water cut off earlier than usual, Hattan said.

The only thing they can do is pay attention to their (water) rights in planning, Hattan said. They may need to plant different crops.

Some crops already are being affected, said Darin Walenta, Oregon State University Extension agent.

The winter wheat growth is not as vigorous as it has been in normal precipitation years, he said. Were looking at potential yield impact, and the severity of impacts will pan out as we work through the growing season.

Walenta said growers can use several techniques to manage the crops, such as irrigating just before the crop needs it the most and using water in a timely fashion when you have it.

This is the second consecutive year with low rain and snowfall. An unusually dry fall of 1999 affected the growth of new trees. Adult trees also feel the stress of low moisture.

Theyre going to be somewhat stressed, and that affects their ability to defend against insects and disease, Barrett said. Id look for the potential of expanded bark beetle activity.

State forestrys Jacques said hes recommending that landowners do not burn during the spring. Slash piles burned in the spring can retain hot embers well into the dry season, he said. During years of dry autumns, slash burns retain their heat into the following spring.

Everybody is aware of how dry it is, Jacques said.