August 28, 2001 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE Wallowa Countys drought has been declared a disaster by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman.

The declaration came in the wake of farm losses caused by a drought that began last September and continues. Under the designation, farmers are eligible for federal disaster assistance, including Farm Service Agency and Emergency Loans.

Farmers in Union County will also be eligible for emergency farm loans, said Charles Newhouse, district director for the Farm Service Agency. Union County has not been declared a disaster area, but because the county is contiguous to Wallowa County, some benefits will apply.

This is the third consecutive drought year, said Wallowa County OSU Extension Agent John Williams.

Three weeks of moisture in July allowed some spring crops to be harvested at an average level, but the dryland winter crops such as grain, wheat and rangeland were severely damaged.

Grass never grew in some areas, Williams said.

A lack of streamflow has brought an end to irrigation for many growers, and nearly everyone is losing some irrigation water, he said. The lack of water is evident at Wallowa Lakes unusually low level for late summer.

Some ranchers have run out of water for their livestock and some have moved stock to hay meadows, eliminating planned hay cuts.

Others may find they need to sell cattle earlier than planned, Williams said.

The emergency disaster loans now available may be used to pay production costs, pay essential family living expenses, reorganize the farming operation, refinance debt or restore or replace essential property. The loans are available to those who have suffered a minimum 30 percent loss and those who cannot get commercial credit.

Emergency loan applications can be picked up at the Wallowa County Farm Service Office, 209 N.W. First St., Enterprise, and at the Union County Farm Service Office in the Ag Services Center on McAlister Road in Island City.

Applications for drought losses must be filed by April 23, 2002.