Bend Bulletin - Deschutes basin snowpack less than half of normal

This article was published on: 12/27/23 1:02 PM

Snowpack in the Central Cascades is well below normal for this time of year. Those doing snow dances may need to stomp a little harder as there is little precipitation in the forecast.

As of Wednesday, snowpack in the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River Basin was just 44% of normal, according to the average measurement from 14 stations that measure snow depth in the region. Snow levels are well below last year at this time when snowpack in the region was 107% of normal.

Low snowpack can impact tourism as winter weather draws visitors from across the Pacific Northwest and beyond to ski at Mt. Bachelor and Hoodoo ski areas. Poor snow also impacts agriculture because farmers and ranchers rely on snowmelt in the Cascades to water their fields during the growing season.

“Anytime we are below average at any point during the winter is cause for concern, and remember we need multiple good years to replenish from the multiple bad years,” said Mike Britton, executive director of the North Unit Irrigation District.

Still, Britton remains hopeful that the storms will arrive in time to bring snowpack levels back to normal.

“Forty-four percent (of normal snowpack) is not helping at this point in the season, but there is still a lot of winter left and a lot of ground could be made up in a short time,” he said.

A return to normal levels isn’t expected in the short term.

Christel Bennese, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Pendleton, said there is little snow in the forecast over the next week.

“Other than the high peaks of the mountains, we are not looking at getting a whole lot,” said Bennese. “

While the overall average snowpack throughout the Upper Deschutes Basin is less than half of normal, within the basin there are noticeable differences.

At Santiam Junction close to Hoodoo Ski Area, snowpack is just 21% of normal. That is one reason behind Hoodoo’s inability to open this season.

Meanwhile, at the Irish Taylor snow measurement site, close to Mount Bachelor, snowpack is 60% of normal — still well below normal but enough to allow Mt. Bachelor ski area to remain open. Mt. Bachelor can occasionally help itself through dry periods with its snow-making capabilities.

“Our operations team has been doing an incredible job maintaining our snow surface. We continue to make snow when conditions allow, but it has been too warm this week to do so,” said Lauren Burke, a spokesperson for the resort.

“We, like most ski resorts on the West Coast right now, would love to see some more snow on the ground as we enter the busy holiday season,” she added.

Snow scientists point to unseasonably warm temperatures in the Pacific Northwest as a reason for the low snowpack.

“This year, snowpack, or the lack thereof, has been impacted by higher-than-normal temperatures so far in December, which has led to more precipitation falling as rain even at higher elevations in the mountains,” said Matt Warbritton, supervisory hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Larry O’Neill, the state’s climatologist and an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, says El Niño conditions continue to impact weather conditions across the region.

While El Niño usually means plenty of snow in California, it often leaves Oregon warmer and drier than normal.

“This is looking like a warm snow drought. We had adequate precipitation for a good snowpack, but it came either as snow and got rained on and melted off, or it was just too warm for it to stick around,” said O’Neill.

O’Neill said a similar weather pattern emerged in the winter of 2015-16, and 2018-19.

In the 2015-16 winter, the Upper Deschutes had historically low snowpack. In 2018-19 the winter weather picked up and later in the season and ended up only slightly below average.

“What is on the table right now is this could end up being a year like 2015-2016, that was a pretty bad year,” said O’Neill. “It is becoming more of a possibility that we could end up with very little snow for the whole season.”

O’Neill added that forecasts show January to have above-average temperatures.

“That is not good news,” said O’Neill. “Nothing is baked in so we could get a single storm that brings us back to where we need to be. But it’s not a good omen for our snowpack.”