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The impacts of drought are already here

This summer, onion farmers in eastern Oregon and western Idaho faced a double threat to their livelihood. Even though most farmers had access to plenty of irrigation water, a lack of spring rain and hotter-than-normal summer temperatures hampered production.

A dry spring resulted in fewer onions germinating, or sprouting, than usual, for a loss of about 15% to 20%, said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, Oregon. During the region’s summer heatwave, the onions that did come up suffered further. Onions grow best in 50-to-90-degree weather, not 100-plus degrees, Riley said. Heat stress could mean about 20% to 25% fewer onions coming out of the ground this fall. This will be the poorest crop we’ve had in a decade at least,” he told
Plentiful irrigation water is not guaranteed going forward, either. One reason growers in Riley’s area had enough water this year is that many get their water from the Owyhee Reservoir, which holds up to a two-year supply. Last winter, the reservoir was still half-full — it held water leftover from plentiful precipitation the winter prior. So it didn’t matter that not much snow melted into the reservoir in spring 2021.

But this winter, the reservoir will be effectively emptied, leaving no surplus water to put toward next year’s crops.

The impacts of drought are already here, and experts say Idaho is facing down a future with less water. Already, the effect of the drought and warm summer weather is being felt across the region’s agricultural sector. Farmers are skilled at adapting to adverse conditions. But the adaptations they have to make are already costing them time and money, and those measures may need to be more drastic in the future to avoid potential food shortages.

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