March 3, 2009 - Bend Bulletin So, How's The Snowpack?

March 3, 2009
March 3, 2009 - Bend Bulletin So, How's The Snowpack?

So, how’s the snowpack?
It’s slightly below average, but experts aren’t yet alarmed

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin
Published: March 03. 2009 4:00AM PST

Snowpack in the Upper Deschutes-Crooked River Basin is slightly below average as March begins, but not so much as to cause concern for local irrigation districts. The National Resources Conservation Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, measures snowpack not by measuring how many inches of snow are on the ground, but by determining how much water will be released when the snow melts.

As of Monday, the snowpack in the Upper Deschutes-Crooked River Basin was at 87 percent of the historical average for that date. It has been a below-average year across most of the state, according to NRCS snowpack data. Just one of the 11 basins reported a snowpack greater than the historical average on Monday, with two reporting snowpacks less than 65 percent of average. The remaining basins reported snowpacks at between 75 and 89 percent of average.

John Lea, Oregon’s snow survey supervisor for the NRCS, said there’s still time for snowpacks to build up to average levels. Lea said the snowpack usually reaches about 80 percent of its peak by early March, with the peak typically coming around April 1. Still, he said it’s the right time for local water managers to start thinking about contingency plans. While snow usually continues to accumulate through early April, the peak in the Upper Deschutes-Crooked River Basin has come a month earlier as recently as 2007.

“If everything shut off tomorrow and this is all we had to deal with, we might make it through,” Lea said. “It’s kind of at that squeaky area right now, if we started restricting water supplies and managing water tightly from this second on, we’d come close.” Regional Water Manager Kyle Gorman said he meets with representatives from irrigation districts that draw water from the Deschutes River every month to bring them up to date with the summer flow forecast. Years where snowpacks and flows are better than 80 percent of average don’t usually require extensive planning on how water is to be allocated, Gorman said. The process gets much more difficult when summer flows are down to around 50 percent of average, he said, something that last happened in the Deschutes River system in 2001.

“(This year) is definitely below average, but in most cases, there’s a buffer through storage, and the ground water system in the Deschutes, so that 87 percent isn’t an immediate factor on water available,” Gorman said. “It isn’t where we’d like to be, but we can manage it through careful water use and get through a year.”

Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, also said the reservoirs provide a backup during a smaller-than-average snowpack year. With Wickiup Reservoir nearly full and other area reservoirs expected to fill up by the end of the winter, irrigators who take their water from the Deschutes can rely on water stored behind the dams, if necessary.

But, if irrigators use too much of the stored water this summer, there would be less available as a backup for summer 2010. “The problem will be if we have a very hot, dry spring, coupled with a hot summer,” said Heisler. “We will draw the reservoir down and we’ll basically end the year with lower reservoirs. ... The challenge for irrigators, and therefore the river, may come next year.”

The more snow, the better, said Mike Britton, manager of the North Unit Irrigation District, because a bigger snowpack would result in more water that could be stored in the reservoirs for next year.

Scott Hammers can be reached at 541-383-0387 or Reporter Kate Ramsayer contributed to this story.

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2008

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