May 17, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Water watchers breathe a bit easier

May 18, 2010
May 17, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Water watchers breathe a bit easier

Water watchers breathe a bit easier

By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin

Last modified: May 17. 2010 12:27PM PST

While the snowpack in the Cascades finished the winter below average in size, a cool and wet spring has helped to minimize some of the water-related problems that officials earlier predicted for irrigators, fish and fire managers.

“The month of April was very good to the Deschutes Basin,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department. “We received precipitation, and it was cold enough where the snowpack in the higher elevations remained.”

With the snowpack at 93 percent of average last week, some irrigators will have to rely less on water from reservoirs — several of which filled up with the spring rains and runoff. The water-conservation projects in the Deschutes Basin mean that more water will flow down the Middle Deschutes this year. And an extra couple of weeks of snow and rain could help the fire season start a little later than it otherwise would have.

Oregon's weather followed an El Niño pattern this year, said Jon Lea, the state's snow survey program manager with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The season started early with almost record snowfall in parts of the state, and then the snow pretty much stopped for much of January, February and March, he said.

“Then we started getting storms about the first of spring,” Lea said.

The late storms don't make up for the small snowpack, which was just above half of its normal size at times. The Deschutes River is still predicted to run at about 80 percent of its average flow at Benham Falls this summer, Lea noted. But with the late snow, perhaps there won't be as much of a problem with the flows tapering off later in the summer.

A wet spring means that the state went from a situation where there were definitely going to be water issues to one in which problems could possibly be avoided.

Still, a lot of what happens depends on the weather this summer, Gorman said.

Irrigators won't have to rely on water from the reservoirs as much as they thought they would have to in February or March, he said, but how much they have to draw from Wickiup Reservoir or others will depend on how hot and dry the summer is, and how much water irrigators end up needing for their crops.

“It's hard to predict,” he said.

But things are looking good for the Middle Deschutes this year, said Tod Heisler, executive director with the Deschutes River Conservancy.

Because of projects that replaced leaky canals with pipes, which allow irrigators to divert less water and instead leave it in the rivers, the Middle Deschutes should have close to 150 cubic feet per second of water flowing down it this year — significantly more than the 30 cfs the river occasionally dropped down to in summers before 1998.

Still, the relatively dry winter means that there could be low flows in area creeks and rivers that don't have dams and reservoirs to store water in and release it through the summer, said Scott McCaulou with the river conservancy.

But in waterways like Whychus Creek, those drops in flow could be compensated for this year by the recent water conservation projects. With less water being diverted for irrigation, and more left in the creek, it could mask the effects of the dry winter.

“It's kind of like a buffer,” McCaulou said.

Because of the relatively small snowpack, fire forecasters were predicting that the snow would start to melt early and vegetation would start to dry up. That could have helped to kick off fire season about two weeks earlier than its usual start date, which is around the Fourth of July.

But with the late snows, the wildfire season might not start as early as originally thought, said John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

“It was below average most of the winter, and it's caught up right at the end,” he said.

By comparing this winter's weather patterns with the weather in previous years, forecasters are thinking that the summer could be a little hotter than normal and maybe a little drier than usual, Saltenberger said. But there also could be less lightning than in an average summer.

So overall, the forecast calls for a typical summer, he said, with wildfires sparking and some of them growing big.

“Nothing unusual's anticipated,” he said.

Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin

The Middle Deschutes looks to be in decent shape this summer, says Tod Heisler, executive director with the Deschutes River Conservancy. Replacing some canals with pipes will allow irrigators to divert less water, meaning the Middle Deschutes should have close to 150 cubic feet per second of water flowing down it this year. Before 1998, the flow would occasionally drop as low as 30 cfs.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010

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