Recent storms improve Deschutes County drought

March 7, 2019
Recent storms improve Deschutes County drought

Record February snow upgrades drought outlook from “extreme” to “severe”

By Stephen Hamway

Bend’s snowiest February in more than century may finally be pulling Central Oregon out of a long-term drought, but the region still has a long way to go.

Near the end of February, the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly map of drought conditions produced by a mix of state and federal agencies, upgraded Deschutes County to severe drought, an improvement over the extreme drought that much of the county had been mired in since the start of the water year.

Eric Luebehusen, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the author of the Drought Monitor’s most-recent study, released on Thursday, said the region was a long way from being out of long-term drought based on trends such as streamflow and plant conditions. However, he said the most recent signs are positive.

“The short-term outlook is encouraging,” Luebehusen said.

Central Oregon’s drought challenges date back to well before the start of the winter. A dry winter last year, combined with a warm spring and a bone-dry summer, put the region into a water deficit, pushing levels of the region’s large reservoirs to record-low levels.

Near the end of last summer, the U.S. Drought Monitor, a joint production from University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s National Drought Mitigation Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the USDA, determined that the region was in a long-term drought, according to Brad Rippey, another USDA meteorologist. Rippey said the region is facing a precipitation deficit that will take time to overcome.

“You’re talking on the order of 10 to 20 inches,” Rippey said.

Until the second week of February, Central Oregon looked to be on track for another warm, dry winter. Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor for the National Resources Conservation Service’s Portland office, said the snowpack feeding the Upper Deschutes River stood at 73 percent of normal as of Feb. 7.

Since then, however, Bend has been battered by a series of winter snow storms, which dropped more than 45 inches on the city in February, according to the National Weather Service. The total is the most during February since the station began recording data 118 years ago.

The constant snow has made life difficult for Bend residents, but has been a boon for the region’s snowpack. As of Thursday, the Upper Deschutes’ snowpack stood at 113 percent of normal.

“It’s been a pleasant turnaround,” Oviatt said.

He said this recent round of storms, caused by a cold blast of air from Canada mixed with humid Pacific air, is relatively unique in that it brought lots of precipitation to all parts of the state. Only one watershed — the Lower Deschutes — had a lower-­than-average snowpack as of Thursday.

Despite that, Luebehusen said he wasn’t prepared to remove Deschutes County from the list of areas impacted by drought entirely. He said the drought monitor does take snowpack into account when considering drought, but noted that it also looks at factors like the health of vegetation, and flows in nonregulated streams and rivers, indicators that he said are lagging behind historic norms.

“We would like to see those long-term signals get closer to neutral,” Luebehusen said.

One big step would be having a cool, damp spring that causes the snow to melt slowly, maximizing the runoff. Rippey said even recent winters with near-normal snowpacks have been undone by warmer-than-normal springs in recent years, leaving the Deschutes Basin at a deficit when summer begins.

“We’ve had a lot of very poor Marches and Aprils in recent years,” Rippey said.

The early indicators are positive. The National Weather Service is projecting colder-­than-normal temperatures and near-normal precipitation in Bend during March, which Oviatt said would help the region hold onto its snowmelt in an orderly fashion.

“Right now, this is exactly the scenario we want to see,” Oviatt said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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