Snowpack a fraction of normal in Oregon

Video: Checking the snowpack near Bend

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

WANOGA SNO-PARK — Peter McManus didn’t have to put on snowshoes to check the thin snowpack Friday west of Bend.

Normally, there is 38 inches of snow this time of year at the snow course near Wanoga Sno-Park, based on records going back 30 years. On Friday, McManus, an engineering technician for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Redmond, and a team of workers with the federal agency found 9 inches of snow there.

“It’s pretty low,” he said.

Midway through winter, the snow is low around Central Oregon and across the state. The Deschutes/Crooked River Basin was at 32 percent of normal late this week, according to the Conservation Service. Statewide snowpack was at 36 percent of normal.

The survey was the first of the year for McManus and Kurt Moffitt, a soil scientist for the Conservation Service in Redmond. At the end of February and the end of March, they’ll return to three snow courses along the Cascades Lakes Highway to see how the snowpack is doing.

They take a series of measurements and weigh snow samples at each course to determine depth and water content.

The agency also maintains a network of automated snow-measuring sites, on which the daily updates of basinwide and statewide snowpack is based. Over the next week, Conservation Service scientists will use snowpack data to create a streamflow forecast, or a prediction of how much water will flow into streams, rivers and lakes around the state once the snow melts.

How much snowmelt there is depends on how much snowpack there is. And unless there is a dramatic change in the weather this winter, there might not be much. Central Oregon is in the midst of severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, produced weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

“We are all preparing for a very dry summer; just how dry depends on the remainder of this winter season,” said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes basin watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Despite the drought, reservoirs in the Deschutes River system are doing fairly well. Wickiup Reservoir, the largest in the system, was 83 percent full late this week, according to data from the Bureau of Reclamation. Crescent Lake was 70 percent full and Crane Prairie Reservoir was 71 percent full. Giffin said he expected Wickiup to completely fill this year.

Groundwater helps refill the reservoirs, Giffin said, so they are not as affected by low rainfall or snowmelt as are other reservoirs. If the dry weather continues, growers will use more water from the reservoirs this summer and there could be less groundwater to revive them next winter.

“Our biggest fear would be a continuing drought,” he said.

In the Crooked River Basin, rainfall and snowmelt directly refill the reservoirs, and the drought has left them low. Ochoco Reservoir was 23 percent full late this week and Prineville Reservoir was 54 percent full. Unless there is an influx of rain and snow before irrigation season, which starts at the beginning of April, Giffin said there may be water restrictions for irrigators dependent on the reservoirs this summer.

While there could be rain- and snow-producing storms in February and March, Oregon has already gone through its three rainiest and snowiest months — November, December and January — with well below normal rainfall and snowfall, said Kathie Dello, deputy director for the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

She said the small storm last week helped, but there needs to be a string of cold, snow-producing storms for a turnaround.

“We really need to start making up some snow soon or we’ll be in trouble,” Dello said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com.