June 06, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Union County farmers will get some relief from the dry weather conditions if the governor declares a drought emergency for the


The county commissioners voted Wednesday to ask for a drought declaration after watermaster Shad Hattan reported that the combined storage in the Wolf and Pilcher reservoirs is at 61 percent of normal, Hattan said. Stream flows in the North Powder River are about where they normally are in early August.

Only irrigators with senior water rights, those from 1887 or earlier, may take water from the North Powder River, Hattan said. The Grande Ronde River and Catherine Creek flows are at somewhat higher levels, Hattan said. The water level in those streams is where it should be in mid-July.

Doug Lewis, who farms in the Powder River Basin, had asked the commissioners to request an emergency declaration for drought conditions.

Youre moving quickly, he told the commissioners Wednesday. Thats good.

Six Oregon counties, Klamath, Jefferson, Wasco, Hood River, Crook and Lake, already have been declared official drought areas.

Lewis said this years drought is potentially the worst since he has been farming. The most extreme conditions came in 1977, and that year, rain came during the summer, Hattan said.

Potatoes and peppermint, Lewiss crops, especially demand late season water, he said. In earlier years more grain was grown, but within the past eight to 10 years, crops requiring more water have been added.

An official drought emergency will allow growers to seek federal or state funds and be more flexible in their use of water.

Lewis said he plans to modify the crop of at least one field. He may leave the field fallow or use it to grow pasture.

The fear is that farmers will try to save everything instead of concentrating on their best crops, Hattan said.

The summer of 2001 is the second consecutive summer to see dry conditions in the Grande Ronde Valley, although a drought emergency was not declared last year.

Its been building on itself, Lewis said. We had a dry fall. When we get 60 percent of water in the mountains, that doesnt mean 60 percent on the ground. We have to try to manage the water so we dont stress the crops.

County commissioner Steve McClure said Baker County also is seeking a drought emergency declaration from the governor.