Oregon's snowpack at just 11 percent of average

May 12, 2015
Oregon's snowpack at just 11 percent of average

Rough season ahead for agriculture and fisheries

By Jeff Barnard | The Associated Press | Posted May. 12, 2015 at 2:00 AM

Snowpack in the mountains of Oregon is low for the second year in a row, prompting predictions of reduced stream flows that could hurt farmers and fish.

After a winter with more rain than snow at lower elevations, the May report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service put Oregon's snowpack at 11 percent of average statewide. Officials reported finding bare dirt at all but a few measurement spots.

The conditions promise less irrigation water for farmers and stream flows that make it difficult for salmon and steelhead to migrate to the ocean and return to spawning grounds.

Hydrologist Julie Koeberle said the snowpack has not been nearly as low since 1992, when it was 13 percent of average. Prospects for rain during the normally dry summer season are uncertain, she added.

Last year, Oregon saw far deeper snowpacks, ranging from 120 percent of normal in the northeastern corner of the state, to 18 percent in the Klamath Basin, with about half of average in the central part of the state.

Oregon does not export water to other drought-stricken states in the West, but the Klamath River does flow from Oregon through Northern California before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

If the Southern Pacific Ocean warming condition known as El Niño persists into next winter, it could mean another dry winter in the Northwest.

Around the state, snowpack ranged from zero in the Klamath Basin to 16 percent in northeastern Oregon. Major federal reservoirs were about half full in much of the Willamette Basin.

One bright spot was the Rogue River, Oregon's leading whitewater rafting spot, where flows were projected to be about 55 percent of average — still high enough for rafting — thanks to a reservoir that filled.

"We are looking just fine," with reservoir releases projected to be about the same as last year, said Brad Niva, owner of Rogue Wilderrness Adventures in Merlin.

Oregon's other major whitewater river, the Deschutes, is projected at 71 percent of average flows.

The primary reservoir serving the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation program that includes about 275 square miles of farms straddling the Oregon-California border, was nearly full, but that amounts to only enough water to meet Endangered Species Act mandates for sucker fish in the reservoir and coho salmon in the Klamath River, said Greg Addington, director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

The water flowing into the reservoir, Upper Klamath Lake, from melting snowpack and groundwater supplies farmers, but projections for amounts provided for irrigation this summer have dropped from 60 percent of normal to less than half.

Biologists for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife say low springtime flows mean that more young steelhead will be eaten by predators and killed by disease as they migrate to the ocean. The flows have been aided by extra springtime dam releases but remain a problem that is compounded by food availability in the ocean being lower than in recent years.

State biologist Pete Samarin adds that threatened coho salmon in the Rogue Basin are struggling with a second straight year of low stream flows. Many of the tributaries where they spend their first year will likely go dry this year, partly from irrigation withdrawals.

"It makes a fish person nervous," he said. "They have a three-year life cycle. If they do poorly for three consecutive years, they will incur pretty serious issues for adult returns in the future."

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