An estimated 2,100 people from across the Northwest attended the inaugural edition of the Central Oregon Agricultural Show at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center in Redmond.

The event came as farmers and ranchers in the region face another year of paralyzing drought, with water shortages projected to bring an abbreviated growing season and major economic damage due to crop losses.

Water was a central theme among the show’s speakers and guests, who discussed how to get the most out of every drop and what can be done going forward to strike a balance between the needs of irrigators, fish and wildlife.

“I think there needs to be a lot of attention paid to Central Oregon right now,” said JoHanna Symons, a rancher from nearby Madras. “We’re in a pretty catastrophic situation.”

Symons raises cattle and runs a commercial feedlot with her husband, Jeremy. In 2016, the couple co-founded a nonprofit organization, Perfect Balance USA, in response to litigation over the Oregon spotted frog, which was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Farming, recreation and ESA-listed species all depend on water from the Deschutes River to thrive, Symons said. Perfect Balance USA strives to find “win-win” solutions for the basin, though catastrophic drought has only made that mission all the more difficult.

“It’s never been this bad,” Symons said. “You really don’t know how much water you’ll get. You might be hesitant to plant, or you might over-plant. Some crops might be destroyed.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly 94% of Oregon is in some stage of drought. That includes 15% in “exceptional drought,” the highest category, extending from the Klamath Basin north to near the Columbia River and encompassing most of Central Oregon.

In its latest water supply outlook, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service predicts streamflows in the Upper Deschutes and Crooked river basins will range from 43% to 83% of the median. “Water managers in the basin should prepare for significantly reduced water supplies in the coming months if conditions do not improve,” the report states.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has declared a drought emergency in Klamath, Crook, Jefferson and Morrow counties, making them eligible for state and federal disaster relief. Gilliam and Jackson counties have also requested emergency drought declarations.

Symons said agriculture is the backbone of the nation, and “needs to be prioritized, especially right now.”

Perfect Balance USA plans to resume farm tours in April, which Symons said are the best way to reconnect people with where their food comes from. The group is also targeting several projects including planting MegaFlora trees on government land to sequester carbon.

That wasn’t the only potential solution being proposed at the Central Oregon Ag Show.

Tony Newbill, a cattle rancher from Powell Butte, purchased a vendor booth at the show to promote cloud seeding — a type of weather modification in which compounds such as silver iodide are released into the air, bonding with water particles in clouds and causing them to fall as precipitation.

Cloud seeding is successfully used in other Western states including Idaho and California, but not Oregon, Newbill said. He worries that deepening drought and water shortages will eventually lead to infighting among the eight irrigation districts that make up the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.

“All us farmers and ranchers in Central Oregon right now are struggling,” Newbill said. “What I’m seeing evolve here is we’re going to start fighting among the districts.”

Newbill was joined by Paul Romero, a Republican candidate for Oregon governor from Roseburg, who has adopted cloud seeding as part of his campaign.

Elsewhere around the fairgrounds, crowds gathered each afternoon for a live working dog demonstration by trainer Clint Johnson. A vintage tractor and gas engine exhibition was presented by Ed Staub, along with 59 other exhibitors.

Joe Beach, editor and publisher of the Capital Press, which produced the Central Oregon Ag Show, said the newspaper is committed to making the show an annual event.

“We are extremely happy with the turnout for our first show in Central Oregon,” Beach said. “We’ve had nothing but positive responses from our sponsors and our exhibitors.”

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