By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Drying Times: Drought in Yamhill County

It still is.

Rainfall over the past 15 years has been below normal, and conditions this year have been especially severe. Mountain snowpacks and river levels are at record low levels, groundwater is severely depleted, and the parts of the state that aren’t in severe drought are in extreme drought.

Oregon is not alone in this predicament; all of Washington state is experiencing the same mix of severe and extreme drought, as is much of Nevada, and half of California is in exceptional drought, with most of the remainder in severe to extreme drought. Exceptional drought, the most acute stage, is also spreading into Nevada.

On August 13, the federal Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño Advisory, noting that there is a greater than 90 percent chance that El Niño conditions will continue through the winter, and an 85 percent chance it will last into early spring of next year.

That means another year of warmer temperatures and low rainfall is likely, in an already parched region.

“In this 15 year period, we’ve had, maybe 12 that have been less than normal (rainfall) ... That makes quite an impact over the long term,” state Agricultural Water Resource Specialist Margaret Matter said.

Each year, she said, there’s a little less water stored in the soil, aquifers and reservoirs, “and next year’s a little drier. That adds up. And the warmer temperatures add quite a bit to depletion. It evaporates off the soil, evaporates off the surface of streams, as well as ... lakes or reservoirs. It also increases crop water use, any kind of plants’ transpiration. To keep cool, they’ve got to consume more water.”

Diana Enright, of the state Water Resources Department, said record low snowpack levels have added to the impact.

“The Natural Resources Conservation Service also says that what snow that fell melted two to three months early, which impacts not only instream flows, but also soil moisture,” Enright said. “According to the NRCS, soil moisture in the mountains and foothills is at new low levels…something that hasn’t been seen since they began keeping records.”

It’s a common assumption, Matter said, that warmer temperatures will mean longer growing seasons, but the reality isn’t that simple.

Whether there’s a longer growing season “isn’t just dependent on temperature; it’s also dependent on water availability,” she said.

“And then getting back to the forest, you just have a longer period of time when you’re more susceptible to fires.”


Climate scientists predict that Oregon can expect warmer, drier summers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every summer will look like this one, Matter said.

“A better way to think about it is that this is now a part of our range of variability,” she said.

In Oregon, lack of mountain snow, which normally keeps rivers plentiful with cold water, has left rivers extremely low, and so warm that fish are dying in record numbers.

On July 31, a coalition of conservation groups that included Columbia Riverkeepers, Idaho Rivers, Pacific Rivers Council, Snake River Waterkeeper, Water Watch and Wild Salmon, issued a press release saying that federal dam operators were breaking federal law by allowing the Columbia River to reach lethally hot temperatures.

The Clean Water Act bans Columbia River temperatures warmer than 68 degrees Farenheit; salmon die in temperatures warmer than 70. This summer, more than a quarter million of the sockeye salmon returning to spawn in the Columbia River have died because the high temperatures, and biologists say up to 80 percent of the run may die.

“This summer’s salmon catastrophe was entirely predictable and preventable,” Greg Haller, Conservation Director for the Pacific Rivers Council, said in the press release. “We’ve known for decades that dams create unsafe temperature pollution that will only get worse with climate change. We cannot allow energy profits to push salmon to the edge of extinction.”


Yamhill County, along with the Willamette Valley, is in severe drought, with extremely dry soil.

The state Water Resources Department has shut off water rights issued after 1980 for the South Yamhill River, and expects to cut them back to 1975 in the next few days.

In some areas of southern and eastern Oregon, rivers are so low that rights have been cut to “before statehood,” Enright said. “Regulation for senior water rights is occurring in places that have never seen regulation before, such as Polk County,” she said.

The cutbacks leave farmers to rely on stored water, if they have it, or wells drawing from increasingly low aquifers.

The Yamhill Basin, encompassing most of Yamhill County and the northern section of Polk County, covers 769 square miles, a land area of some 494,000 acres that drains to the Yamhill River, which in turn empties into the Willamette River.

It also, for practical purposes, is considered to include the 56-mile Chehalem Creek drainage basin in northeast Yamhill County.

The forested slopes of the Coast Mountain Range and their foothills around Amity and Dundee occupy about 40 percent of the basin’s land mass; farms and pastures cover another 34 percent.

Yamhill County is grass seed and wheat country, although it also produces hazelnuts, wine grapes, berries, tree fruits and vegetables, along with a wide variety of livestock.

There are 193,640 acres of farmland, and another 62,931 acres of range and pasture, according to the 2013 Yamhill Agricultural Water Quality Management Area Plan. Nine cities occupy about 8,000 acres of land, and continue to grow.

Dayton farmer Sam Sweeney said that growth, on some of the world’s richest farmland, is an unfortunate problem.

“I-5, it just draws people like a magnet, and it just seems like everybody can see western Oregon and wants a part of it,” he said. “Historically, we created our own problem by settling on some of the richest farmland and we can’t go back and change that, we’ve just got to go on the best we can, but ... it leads to an awful lot of political conflict.”

Oregon’s land use laws call for preserving farmland wherever possible, while its laws governing cities call for them to be able to grow in perpetuity.

Sweeney suggested that focusing on in-filling vacant lots, allowing smaller lots, and more vertical building might help relieve some of the pressure cities put on farmland, by competing for both land and water.

Both are highly contentious issues. Water in the west is more precious than gold.


The Willamette Valley, and more specifically, Yamhill County, have a complex hydrology.

Oregon’s landscape was formed by millions of years of violent natural events, including volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes and catastrophic floods. Former seabeds crumpled and raised in the slow-motion collision of two tectonic plates that now form the Cascade and Coast Range mountains. Layers of basalt deposited by volcanoes form bedrock, more than a thousand feet deep in some areas, especially in the foothills, while the rich soil of the valley floor was deposited there by the Missoula Floods of the Pleistocene era, some 18,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Those floods, caused by the collapse of a wall of ice damming an inland sea in what is now western Montana, carved out the Columbia Gorge and roared into the Willamette Valley, filling it, as the water backed up.

The floods occurred repeatedly; geologists say there may have been as many as 100 over some 2,500 years. Much of the soil washed away along the route was deposited in the Willamette Valley, today considered one of the most fertile regions on earth.

One result of the complex geography of the region is that there is no single groundwater table, and the aquifer system is so complex that two wells drilled next to each other in some areas may hit two different aquifers – or none.

In 2014, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oregon Water Resources Department jointly published a study of the groundwater flow system of the Willamette Basin, with an emphasis on the Central Willamette subbasin, about 6,700 square miles, out of the 12,000 square-mile Willamette and Sandy River drainage basins in northwestern Oregon.

One of the problems, it noted, is a lack of information.

“Groundwater is the only readily available resource to satisfy new demands for water in many areas,” it states. “Various factors limit the capacity of the groundwater system to meet these demands ... Available information and tools have not been sufficient to quantify these limiting factors.”

Recharge of groundwater in the Willamette Basin “is primarily from precipitation in the uplands of the Cascade Range, Coast Range and western Cascades areas,” it states.

Much gets used by human beings; much of it for agriculture.

“Mean annual groundwater withdrawal for water years 1995 and 1996 was about 400 cubic feet per second; irrigation withdrawals accounted for about 80 percent of that,” the report states.

It said that “The Central Willamette subbasin shows the greatest effects from pumping of any subbasin in the study area. Results ... indicate that average annual groundwater levels have declined in most parts of the Central Willamette subbasin since pumping began.”

That, it said, is with only about half of all permitted water rights in use, according to analysis by the state Water Resources Department.

The state, and indeed the entire American West, must deal with significant challenges. This series, “Drying Times,” focuses on some of those faced by Yamhill County and the surrounding region.


Robert Lee

Thank you for this article. I think what might be important to note is that we may have settled the west during wetter years than it historically averaged; the rainfall over the past decades may be the new "normal", and adjustments will have to be made.

Horse with no name

Is it too much to ask whether the overwhelming majority of climate scientist in the world could possibly be correct about fossil fuels and the effect on our climate? No let's just call this the new normal and la de da down the road.

Nicole Montesano

As ProPublica reported in June, when rights to Colorado River water were allocated among states about a century ago, it does appear to have been during a wetter-than-average period, and Colorado River water was greatly over-allocated, a problem that continues today, and contributes to the problems being experienced by states using that water.
However, Oregon is not part of the Colorado River Basin.
Oregon's waters are also over-allocated, but rights to Oregon rivers continued to be issued many decades after the state was settled. A warming climate is expected to alter the pattern of precipitation here.

Don Dix

With all the handwringing, it should be noted that McMinnville has been on top of the need for water ... since 1889. Haskins Creek Dam came online in 1927 (81 million gals.), raised in 1952 creating 226 million gals. In 1971, McGuire Dam on the Nestucca added 1.2 billion gals. to Mac's reserve of water.

As the climate changes ('cause that is what it has always done, naturally), the foresight and critical planning of McMinnville Water and Light (since 1905) has placed Mac in an enviable position when compared to many other water districts throughout Western Oregon. The appreciation for those decisions should be shared by all of Mac's residents, past and present.

Horse -- by fossil fuels, I assume you mean CO2 omissions. Did CO2 cause the Medieval Warm Period, or did lack of CO2 cause the Little Ice Age? ... no to both. Those 2 consecutive climate events display how the Earth's climate changes (from hot to cold in this case), and man had no discernible impact, nor did CO2. If one cannot connect CO2 to the climate changes throughout Earth's history (4.5 billion years), how does a 150 year sample size predict anything but conjecture? For a true relationship to hot and cold periods, check out the cycles of the Sun (maximum and minimum). It fits so much better than a trace gas that represents only 4 out of 10,000 atmospheric parts.

Horse with no name

Don - I prefer to side with science and reason. You can believe what you want. I do agree that McMinnville should be the envy of every other city in the state for having Mac Water and Light.

Horse with no name

For everyone who might be interested in science, reason and facts, here's a good place to start:

Don Dix

Horse -- Oh, you mean the same NASA that was headed by James Hansen, the guy who altered historical temperature records lower and used those alterations to show warming?

Or the man who said in 1988, "The West Side Highway in Manhattan would be underwater within 20 or 30 years (2008-2018)." In 2001, he confirmed and reiterated that claim.

Or the man who predicted 5 degrees of warming by 2010 and 9 degrees by 2020s?

For the past 30 years, NASA climate scientists under the leadership of Dr. Hansen have demonstrated nearly complete incompetence in forecasting, and they have tampered with data to try to hide their miscalculations.

The central lie is that we are experiencing a known human-caused climate crisis, a claim based on speculative theories, contrived data and totally unproven modeling predictions (totally unproven!)

You, of course, are free to believe whatever you wish, but one should always be skeptical when someone other than Mother Nature predicts the future climate. Mom has proven she will do as she pleases -- always!

Horse with no name

Take it easy Don, you're going to have to pace yourself. It's not just one man but the vast majority of qualified (you know the ones that went to school, studied the relevant subject matter, publishing peer reviewed research, you know the way science is done) scientist in the world that agree on what the facts are showing. Not sure where you're getting your facts, but they must really be something to override the nearly 200 worldwide scientific organizations that hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.
Even Oklahoma and Iran agree on this. You're going to have to adjust slowly or the cognitive dissonance is going to hurt more.

Don Dix

Horse -- Oklahoma and Iran? Really? Did you know that the Romans grew grapes in the British Isles and Northern Europe in early A.D.? Did you know part of Greenland was farmed until about 1350 A.D.? Do you realize the Artic was nearly ice free ... in the 1920s? And science, or a degree in science, isn't necessary to properly study those facts -- it's called observable history. But they sure do throw a big wedgee up Hansen's pants and all his faulty predictions. The "one man (Hansen)' you cite lead NASA, testified before Congress representing NASA, and has little to no respect for any alternative theory, which are many, because he has staked his reputation on being correct. He is 'the go to guy' for the warmist scheme. Now the science: Dispute all you wish, but these are the facts. Nitrogen makes up around 78% of the total atmosphere, while oxygen makes up 21%. The remaining 1% is made up mostly of a gas called argon. This means that with each breath you take you are breathing 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% argon, with trace amounts of other gases, such as methane, hydrogen, helium, neon, krypton, carbon dioxide, and a form of oxygen known as ozone. Notice please, 'trace amounts', including CO2.
Here is a little 'cognitive dissonance' for you -- without CO2, all life on Earth perishes, all life! And increased CO2 is why the planet is much greener than it was 100 yrs. ago. It follows, healthier plants mean more oxygen in the atmosphere (you ever hear of photosynthesis), and healthier plants lead to a stronger food chain. By the way, plants die when CO2 reaches 150ppm, yet they thrive at 1000ppm or higher. One does not have to be a scientist to do the math! (cont.)

Don Dix

Think about it -- taxes (yours) being used to reduce a trace atmospheric gas that all life depends upon, and people fall for it! -- sheep mentality all the way to the cliff!


I like you Don Dix. Very well said. Thanks for being able to express in words what most of us simple, everyday, reasonable people know about climate change but are unable to persuasively articulate.

Don Dix

Joel -- Some people just fall in line without asking pertinent questions, no critical thinking at all. When added to the fact that over 100 predictions of climate doom and gloom for the last 27 years have failed to materialize, wouldn't it be refreshing to hear someone owning up to those failures? All they can say is 'the science is settled', which is the antithesis of the basic science profession. Maybe no one was supposed to notice!

David Bates

If all the doom and gloom comes to pass and it all comes down to two remaining human beings on the planet, my money says that one of those people will deny that global warming is real, and they will argue about it until they die.

Don Dix

Global warming is old news .... it's now 'climate change', so it can be explained away every time Ma Nature thumbs her nose at the hypothesis. Convenient, but glaringly conspicuous, as well.

David Bates

Yes, I'm aware of how Ma Nature's "nose-thumbing" works. It goes something like this: If you have 2,000 glaciers around the world being monitored by scientists, the data for which indicates that 1,994 of them are receding rapidly, then FOX News will breathlessly report on "a new study" showing that glaciers around the world (they may or may not say that it's only six) are "actually expanding!" (or at least not receding) burying once and for previous reports (dozens, or even hundreds) to the contrary, and we all go merrily on our way, deluding ourselves with the fantasy that, since there are two sides to every story, we are obliged to give equal weight and consideration to all arguments, even those that are demonstrably false, absurd, and -- yes -- even stupid. Which is how I feel at the moment, because I promised myself long ago that I would no longer engage in the futile exercise of arguing with global warming and climate change deniers, and yet, here I am.

Note: For those who are interested, a more precise report on the example above with the actual numbers is available in the film "Chasing Ice," an excellent documentary that was made by a guy who didn't believe all the reports about global warming ... until he actually got out into the world and saw with his own eyes what was -- and is -- happening. The film may be rented on DVD locally, and it's also on Netflix.

Robert Lee

David I don't bother to engage anymore. Trying to discuss uncomfortable realities with conservatives is like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory. Willfully ignorant, and no matter the more facts you give them the more they reject the reality and substitute their own.

Don Dix

David -- A small, selected sample set of any natural phenomenon can easily be used to prove a hypothesis. Just study the 'subjects' that seem to be adhering to the desired results. By all accounts, there are between 100,000 - 200,000 glaciers on Earth, so the study ignores at least 80% of the total.

Example -- In 1970, there were over 15,000 stations worldwide reporting temperatures. 75% of those are no longer in the loop. Between 1989 and 1992, NASA dropped more than 5200 stations, and like magic, the average temp. increased! Do you see a connection?

NASA sets the stations approximately 1200km apart(about 620 miles). So, does Mac have the same temperature range as Sun Valley, Idaho? Seeing it yet?

NASA claims places like Bolivia are hot ... but there is no longer a reporting station anywhere in Bolivia. How can the claim to knowledge like that be taken seriously without any raw data to back that claim? Why eliminate an entire country from the 'global discussion' if the discussion is actually 'global'? A third grader could see the intent!

NASA and the AGW crowd has manipulated not only the scientific process and the raw data, but convinced some that they are the only authority on the subject. Of course, the 'authority' is still waiting for the Arctic ice cap to disappear .... while watching it grow for 2 years now!

Being a carbon-based life form, I want answers, not some contrived, altered, misrepresented, unproven hypothesis that lines the pockets of a few. Remember, CO2 @ 150ppm, plants die, and so do you!

David Bates

I want answers too, so answer this: Tell us the name of one professional, reputable scientist who is on record as saying that the goal of international public policy ought to be lowering Earth's atmospheric carbon to 150 ppm and has identified a way to do so.

Don Dix

David -- The level of CO@ is 400ppm. Plants thrive at 1000, and die @ 150. If reduction of CO2 emissions can be achieved, which direction do you suspect the level to go ... up or down? Which good/bad parameter is closer?

If a scientist, or any other 'expert' on the subject can't explain the why the predictions have failed miserably for 20 years, then the hypothesis used to make those predictions is faulty. But no one will let go of that grip because many have staked their legacy (Hansen, Gore) on what they think they know about nature and it's interaction. Based on the 117 predictions so far (IPCC), 114 have been invalidated. Sorry, but I would prefer a second opinion to what has been presented to date!

David Bates

I know what the current level of carbon dioxide is. You keep injecting 150 ppm into the discussion, as if that is somehow a plausible or desirable goal of public policy. As if, in some imagined knee-jerk response to the global warming crisis, we overshoot, bump it down to 150 ppm and all die horrible deaths along with our houseplants.

So once again: WHO is proposing that we even attempt such a thing? Or: What scientist has seriously suggested that 150 ppm is even within the realm of possibility as an unintended result of an irresponsible or uninformed response to climate change? What professional scientific organization is actually worried about this scenario?

Don Dix

Robert -- why would you bring politics into this unless it has become political to you?

If you are looking to flog a conservative with a liberal flavored tongue-lashing, look elsewhere. I am not a member of any of the corrupt political viruses that infest our government, so your snide remark has no traction.

And please inform as to what 'facts" I have presented that are false, or made-up .... please! Thanx in advance!

Don Dix

David - Nobody is supporting a reduction to 150ppm. That was your assumption. The point being, if a reduction in CO2 levels is the mission, then the atmosphere will be a little more unfriendly to plant life. Where as an increase in the levels would be more beneficial, and exhale more oxygen in the atmosphere.

By studying the last 2000 years of human activity on the Earth, there were times of plenty, and times of despair. The unhealthy times included the Maunder Minimum (low solar activity) that lowered Earth's temp. 2 to 3 degrees. This was known as the Little Ice Age, and millions died of viruses and diseases, especially the plague.

By contrast, the Medieval Warm Period (more solar activity) was a time of warmer temps and people in general had better health simply because food was easier grow or to come by.

This is history, nothing more, but it is recorded history. This is the problem with the whole AGW hypothesis. When the climate changed in the past, there was no proof CO2 was the responsible factor, in either direction. But now it's the villain. Somehow, that process of conviction seems like CO2 got framed!

David Bates

Plant life has done fine at 300 ppm for hundreds of thousands of years.

Don Dix

David wrote -- "Plant life has done fine at 300 ppm for hundreds of thousands of years"

Really? The Earth has 'greened' considerably the last 100 years, since CO2 levels surpassed that level. 'Observable evidence' would dispel that statement, unless 'fine' is the 'settled standard'.

By the way, the average enclosed workplace (yours) has a CO2 level of approximately 600 - 800ppm when occupied. Here's hoping everyone is OK, considering the 'high concentration' of that nasty, heat-trapping trace gas!

David Bates

Yes. Really.

Sal Peralta

I liked Ahnold's argument about climate change.

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