Late snow helps Central Oregon's rivers, but problems remain

March 29, 2019
Late snow helps Central Oregon's rivers, but problems remain

Despite snow, drought and low reservoirs still a problem 

By Stephen Hamway

The end of winter was one for the history books throughout Central Oregon, thanks to the snowiest February ever in Bend and elsewhere.

Still, a single month, no matter how snow-filled, can’t completely turn around a years-long drought. As much as the late snow helped, Central Oregon is facing reservoirs at record-low levels and water shortages for farmers as irrigation season begins.

“Everybody thinks the snow fixed everything, but it really didn’t,” said Mike Britton, general manager of North Unit Irrigation District.

Through the first 50 days of winter, it looked an awful lot like the one that preceded it: A dry spring led into a wet-but-warm start to winter, which left the snowpacks that feed the Upper Deschutes and Crooked rivers in dire shape for the second consecutive year.

However, a change to the prevailing weather pattern that took hold during the first week of February helped reverse that trend. Rob Brooks, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office, said high pressure over Oregon began to dissipate in the first week of February, allowing humid air from the north Pacific to mix with cold air that came down from Canada.

The result was a series of storms that swept across the state, blanketing Oregon with snow. Brooks said Bend officially recorded just under 21 inches in February, making it the snowiest on record. Anecdotally, many parts of the city received much more; with more than 2 feet falling during a three-day period near the end of the month.

“We kind of conveniently packaged all the snow into two weeks at the end of the season,” Brooks said.

The late snow helped turn around what was shaping up to be a dismal snowpack across Oregon. At the start of February, the statewide snowpack stood at 73 percent of normal for that point in the year, said Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor for the National Resources Conservation Service in Portland. By the first week of spring, it had jumped over 120 percent of normal statewide.

But for all the snow Central Oregon received, the region built up a significant snow deficit during a warm start to this winter.

Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said the Central Cascades tend to accumulate more snow in a typical year than other parts of the state, meaning the recent storms had relatively less impact. Consequently, the snowpack that feeds the Upper Deschutes and Crooked rivers is about 10 percent above normal, but is lagging behind the statewide average.

“We are right about where we were expecting to be,” Gorman said.

Unfortunately, a roughly average winter means trouble for Central Oregon’s largest reservoir. Wickiup Reservoir, which dropped to 1 percent full by the end of irrigation season in October, its lowest level in six decades, is still in dire shape. While the snow has allowed water levels to recover to more than two-thirds full, Gorman said it remains at its recorded lowest levels at the end of March.

Other reservoirs in the region are in better shape, however. Ochoco Reservoir, on the Crooked River, was very low early in the year, but Gorman said he was optimistic about the high-elevation snow in the Ochocos feeding the reservoir.

Irrigation season typically gets going in early April, but some irrigation districts are feeling less confident than others about the coming summer. Shon Rae, deputy managing director for Central Oregon Irrigation District, said the district will begin diverting water on April 8, and she’s confident there will be plenty of water for its approximately 3,600 customers.

However, Britton said North Unit, which relies mainly on water stored in Wickiup Reservoir rather than water from the Deschutes River, is not so lucky. He said farmers that receive water from the district will be getting around 25 percent less water per acre-foot than in a normal year, and some farmers may have to leave up to half their acreage fallow this season. Britton said it’s the most austere limit the district has had to implement during his 10 years with the district.

“We just do the best we can with the water we have,” he said.

Still, a lot depends on the weather during spring and early summer. Oviatt said the winter is reminiscent of the one two years ago, when a series of snow storms in December and January blanketed Central Oregon.

However, Oviatt said the solid snow that year didn’t translate to as much water for rivers and streams as it might have been expected to, after an unseasonably warm spell near the end of April caused it to melt off quickly. With April, the typical end of the winter snow accumulation season, fast approaching, Oviatt said he’s hoping for a cool, wet spring.

The National Weather Service forecast calls for relatively normal precipitation over the next three months, though with warmer weather than average during that span. Oviatt said problems tend to start when a sustained period of hot, dry weather causes snow to melt too quickly.

“It’s hard to stop that train when it starts,” Oviatt said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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