Dry winter causes severe drought

Lack of snow has road crews tackling other chores

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin

Normally winter weather in Central Oregon leaves highways and roads covered with snow, prompting crews to clear them with snowplows.

Not this winter.

The Oregon Department of Transportation braced for winter by bringing in 25 seasonal workers, increasing the Central Oregon district staff from 56 to 81 workers for the season, said ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy . Now, instead of plowing snow, the crews are doing work typically done at other, drier times of year, from clearing roadside vegetation to mending guardrails to filling potholes.

“As we have this opportunity we are taking advantage of it,” Murphy said.

Winter has been so dry in Central Oregon and much of the state that the National Drought Mitigation Center last week designated a severe drought in its weekly U.S. Drought Monitor. Another monitor is due out today and, given the lack of rain and snow around the state in the last week, it will likely be the same, said Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University.

“We don’t have rain, we don’t have (much) snowpack and our streams are low,” she said.

The drought designation follows a dry year around Oregon, Dello said. Overall Oregon had its fourth driest year on record since 1895. It was also the driest year statewide in nearly 30 years. In Central Oregon 2013 was the seventh driest year in the 118 years of records and the driest since 2008.

Whether the dry trend continues will determine what work road crews will be doing, out on the highway and in towns around Central Oregon.

Like the ODOT crews, road crews in Bend have been keeping busy with work other than moving snow. They have been out trimming trees, pouring concrete and doing other road maintenance, said Hardy Hanson, streets division manager for Bend Public Works Department.

“We are getting to work that we traditionally wouldn’t,” he said.

The lack of snow removal work could mean savings for both ODOT and the city.

Murphy said ODOT expected to have spent up to $1.6 million on snow removal in the Central Oregon district by this point in winter, but has only spent $745,000 due to the dry conditions. ODOT’s Central Oregon district encompasses Bend, Prineville, Silver Lake and Chemult.

For a typical snow season in the district ODOT has a budget of $11 million. The money covers everything from fueling up snowplows to repairing equipment. If not spent tackling snow, Murphy said the agency will spend it on roadwork.

The city of Bend has $350,000 set aside for snow removal, Hanson said. So far this year it’s spent around $50,000 to $100,000. While there hasn’t been much snow, there have been icy mornings and crews have been out sanding and de-icing roads around town.

If money in the city’s snow removal account isn’t spent it will go into a contingency fund held for when the city goes over its annual snow removal budget, Hanson said. There is currently about $1 million in the contingency fund.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a potential switch in the weather away from a prolonged inversion and stagnant air, but it’s not until next week.

“It looks like next Tuesday we are going to have this change back to more systems coming through,” said Diann Coonfield, a forecaster with the Weather Service in Pendleton.

While Central Oregon is in a drought now, rain and snow in the coming months could change that, said Dello, the climate official at OSU.

“There is a chance to turn it around,” she said. “February and March could be wet.”

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