Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Oregon’s U.S. senators are asking federal officials to review the criteria for rating the severity of drought, arguing the current process misses important measurements.

Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, co-signed a letter Thursday to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

The official U.S. drought monitor, which federal officials use to determine such things as declaring drought disasters and making federal aid available to affected farmers and ranchers, is produced weekly at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Commerce Department, and the Agriculture Department contribute to the Drought Monitor, which was established in 1999.

In their letter, Merkley and Wyden note that the Drought Monitor factors in rainfall, but the senators wrote they have had constituents ask whether the officials who produce the weekly drought map are also considering such factors as heat waves or scanty winter snowpacks.

Hank Stern, a spokesman for Wyden, wrote in an email to the Herald that “Senator Wyden’s staff has heard about the need for newer and better measurement tools from Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett and officials in other rural Oregon counties as well as from climate science officials at Oregon State University.”

In their letter, the senators wrote: “In the western US, extreme temperatures exacerbate drought by increasing demand for water in the summer and limiting important mountain snowpack in the winter. In addition, the Drought Monitor heavily favors reservoir storage and capacity in the western US, but not all users are served by reservoirs.”

Brian Fuchs, who works at the Drought Mitigation Center and is one of the authors of the weekly maps, said he and the authors already review many of the measurements that are listed in the senators’ letter — including snowpack and temperatures.

“In any given week we’re looking at several dozen pieces of data to produce the drought monitor map,” Fuchs said. “Pretty much everything in that letter we’re already doing.”

As an example, Fuchs said snowpack data collected by a network of remote sensors called “Snotels” — there are more than a dozen in Northeastern Oregon — are “vital” to producing the weekly drought maps.

“That’s how we measure snow drought,” Fuchs said.

Wyden and Merkley’s letter also mentions snow drought, writing that their constituents are concerned the Drought Monitor fails to include this measurement.

Wyden and Merkley wrote that they have constituents who believe the Drought Monitor should also include other measurements in addition to temperatures and snowpacks, such as when irrigation water is shut off even to landowners with the oldest water rights, increased irrigation demand due to high temperatures, soil moisture levels, lack of water for livestock, ecological stress on forests and wildfire activity and danger.

The senators also ask in their letter whether the list of authors of the Drought Monitor includes “sufficient attention to including scientists from the Western United States. Is there a system for vetting the e-mail list serve of contributors to ensure the right expert voices are being amplified?”

Fuchs said Drought Monitor authors are always seeking to add new data to their calculations. When the program started in 1999, officials used just four or five measurements, compared with three or four dozen now, depending on the season, he said.

“We do incorporate new tools and data as they become available,” Fuchs said.

He noted, however, that new data sources aren’t automatically added to the suite of statistics that Drought Monitor authors can use. For instance, new sources don’t have a historical record, so current conditions can’t be compared against the past to determine severity, he said.

See more in Monday's edition of The Observer.