Central Oregon snowpack still short

Snowy past two months brought big improvement

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Wintry storms over the past two months in Central Oregon have improved the snowpack, but the amount of snow on the ground is still below normal.

Snow fell Tuesday in Bend and around Central Oregon, adding to the amount of water stored in the mountains.

“Everybody is just glad to see it,” said Julie Koeberle, snow hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Portland.

The snowpack for the Deschutes/Crooked River Basin is at 60 percent of normal for this time of year, she said Tuesday. The calculation is based on data collected by NRCS workers and automated sites around the basin.

At the start of March the basin’s snowpack was at 58 percent of normal and at the start of February it was 33 percent.

“We would like to see a lot more snow,” Koeberle said, “but at least it is an improvement.”

Now the questions for this month are: Will the snowpack continue to accumulate, and improve? Or will it start to wither? A look at data from recent years shows both possibilities playing out. In 2011, a heavy snow year, the snow kept coming in April. Last year, a below-average snow year, the snowpack shriveled between the start of April and the start of May.

Farmers and ranchers who rely on water from snowmelt, particularly those in Crook County, are hoping for more snow, said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

“It would be very welcome and very needed if it were to continue,” he said.

Crook County is in a drought emergency, as declared by Gov. John Kitzhaber on March 21. The declaration makes relief available to farmers and ranchers, such as water rights transfers, and could lead to federal assistance. While there is still drought concern there, the reservoirs in Crook County received a much-needed boost from the rain and snow over the past couple of months.

In late January, Ochoco Reservoir, which holds 44,247 acre-feet of water, was at 23 percent full, and Prineville Reservoir, which holds 148,640 acre-feet, was at 54 percent. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre field with water a foot deep. As of Tuesday, Ochoco was 66 percent full and Prineville was 100 percent full.

Although the reservoirs are in much better shape now than in January, Giffin said he is still concerned about the snowpack.

The below-normal snowpack in the Ochoco and Maury mountains means farmers and ranchers will likely start drawing water from the reservoirs earlier than normal this growing season, and there could be water shortages for growers who rely on natural flows from creeks and rivers upstream of the reservoirs.

Giffin and Koeberle, the NRCS snow hydrologist, said the snowpack has been particularly paltry this season at midlevel elevations, near 5,000 feet, in Central Oregon. Koeberle used measurements taken by NRCS workers Monday near Bend to demonstrate this point.

They found 114 inches of snow on the ground, 100 percent of normal for this time of year, at a snow site near the Dutchman Sno-park at 6,320 feet, she said. They found 24 inches, 52 percent of normal, at a site near Wanoga Sno-park at 5,470 feet.

The snowstorm Tuesday dropped the snow level around Bend to about 3,000 feet, said Marilyn Lohmann, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Pendleton.

The next system is expected Thursday and it should increase the snow level to 5,000 feet or 6,000 feet, dropping rain in town and snow in the mountains.

“Sometimes some of the best snow happens in the spring,” Lohmann said.

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