Oregon’s worsening drought has triggered a federal disaster loan program in 13 Oregon counties.

The U.S. Small Business Administration announced Friday that low-interest loans meant to offset economic losses associated with the drought are now available for small, nonfarm businesses in Grant, Jackson, Baker, Crook, Douglas, Harney, Josephine, Klamath, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wheeler counties, as well as California’s Siskiyou County.

Farmers in those counties are also eligible for emergency aid through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The agencies opened up their aid programs in Oregon in response to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s announcement this week that most of Oregon is in drought disaster mode. A map of the disaster zones nationwide shows California, Nevada, and Arizona completely engulfed in drought, while just a few counties in New Mexico and Utah remain unaffected.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has declared a state-level emergency in Lake and Malheur counties, where she said water projections “look bleak.” Brown is likely to expand the declaration to other counties into more counties after the state’s Water Availability Committee meets next month.

The federal loans of up to $2 million are available to small businesses, agricultural cooperatives and nurseries, aquaculture businesses and nonprofit organizations in danger of failing to meet their bottom line because of drought-related financial hits. The loans do not cover property damage.

“Eligibility covers both the economic impacts on businesses dependent on farmers and ranchers that have suffered agricultural production losses caused by the disaster and businesses directly impacted by the disaster,” said Tanya Garfield, director of the Small Business Administration’s west regional disaster operation center.

As the nightmare scenario of a fourth straight hot, dry summer becomes increasingly likely, Oregon wildlife officials, firefighters, farmers and ranchers are preparing for the worst.

In Malheur County, the Owyhee reservoir is only a quarter full, with little hope that water storage will improve this year. Owyhee Irrigation District manager Jay Chamberlin told water users earlier this week to expect an allotment of 1.3 acre-feet per acre, about a third of the allotment they would receive on a good year.

Many farmers in the region known for growing thirsty onions, sugar beets and sweet corn are switching to drought-hardier seed crops and leaving large swaths of land unplanted, afraid they won’t be able to water it.

“This is just disastrous for them,” Chamberlin said.

Meanwhile, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife experts worry that without sufficient glacial melt to keep waterways deep and cold, fish will struggle to survive. Oregon Department of Forestry officials are bracing for a fourth straight long, devastating fire season.

“Instead of 1- or 2-acre fires in the spring we’ve been seeing 20- and 30-acre fires,” Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Rod Nichols said.

–Kelly House

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